United Nations ceasefire in tatters after 92 killed in Syrian violence (TELEGRAPH UK) By Colin Freeman, and Ruth Sherlock in Beirut 05/27/12)
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Calls for Western military action against Syria intensified on
Saturday after grisly footage of the bodies of children killed in
fresh violence laid bare the failure of the United Nations-brokered
In one of the bloodiest incidents to date in the 15-month long
uprising, 92 people were killed after a 12-hour regime assault on
Houla, in the central province of Homs.
Anti-government activists claimed that troops had first shelled
several villages and then sent in gangs of pro-regime thugs
to “massacre” local families in their houses.
Amateur videos released on YouTube showed footage of the mangled
bodies of 14 child victims lying in rows in a makeshift morgue set up
at a local mosque.
In one horrific scene, a man held up the limp corpse of a boy aged
around seven years old, a gaping hole where the child’s nose and
mouth should have been. “This child, what did he do to deserve this?”
Unarmed UN monitors, who had reportedly been prevented from visiting
the area on Friday because of the fighting, were reduced to
documenting the attack’s horrific aftermath when they finally reached
the scene on Saturday afternoon.
Major General Robert Mood, the UN mission chief in Syria, said that
of the 92 bodies his staff had counted in Houla, at least 32
were “under the age of 10”. He described it as a “brutal tragedy”.
The bloodshed, which began on Friday and was reported to have
continued into the small hours of Saturday morning, was amongst the
worst single incidents since the popular uprising against President
Bashar al-Assad began 15 months ago. It was also a severe blow to the
credibility of the UN-backed peace plan that was supposed to
introduce a ceasefire in early April. Critics said it was clear that
the plan, backed by 250 UN monitors on the ground, was already in
On Saturday the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, called for an
urgent session of the UN Security Council to discuss the killings,
placing the blame squarely on the Syrian government.
“There are credible and horrific reports that a large number of
civilians have been massacred at the hands of Syrian forces in the
town of Houla, including children,” he said.
“The Assad regime must ensure full and immediate access to Houla and
other conflict areas in Syria for the UN monitoring team, and cease
all military operations.”
However, the main Syrian rebel coalition, the Free Syrian Army (FSA),
said it was time for the international community to overcome its
reluctance to get directly involved in the conflict, and to carry out
strikes on regime forces.
The Friends of Syria group, which includes the United States, France,
Britain, Germany and Saudi Arabia, has previously ruled out such
action because of the risk of getting embroiled in what many fear is
already a low-level civil war.
But General Mustafa Ahmed al-Sheikh, head of the Turkey-based FSA
military council, said regime opponents had lost all faith in the UN
Security Council, on which Damascus has Russia as a powerful backer.
“We are calling urgently on the Friends of Syria to create a military
alliance, outside of the UN Security Council, to carry out targeted
strikes against Assad’s gangs and the symbols of his regime,” Mr
Houla, a loose collection of villages with a population of about
40,000, lies on a plain around 25 miles north-west of the city of
Homs, itself the subject of a brutal siege by President Assad’s
forces in February.
The settlement is home mainly to members of Syria’s Sunni Islam
majority, but borders areas dominated by President Assad´s minority
While eyewitness reports of Friday’s violence were confused and often
contradictory, it followed an anti-government demonstration in Houla
after Friday’s midday prayers. Some claimed that rebel gunmen had
earlier courted trouble by opening fire on checkpoints manned by
Whatever the spark, the scale of the ensuing attack appears to have
been brutal even the standards of the Assad regime.
Mousab Azzawi, of the Syrian Network of Human Rights, told The Sunday
Telegraph: “The operation started about midday, with the use of about
50 or 60 mortar shells. Then they started to use tanks and heavy
artillery for two hours. After that they deployed about 13 or 14 cars
with mounted guns, and raided houses at random. They took people out
and started shooting indiscriminately.”
In one household, he claimed, the gunmen slaughtered two entire
families, ranging from grandfathers to children.
“They did not kill them immediately by shooting. But they cut their
throats with knives. That is a very worrying signal, that the regime
is trying the maximum they can to push the people to a civil war.”
One local eyewitness, who gave his name only as Mohammed, added: “At
about 7pm on Friday, a lot of Shabiha (pro-regime militiamen) came
from three nearby Alawite villages. They killed some kids by knife,
some by gun and some by suffocation. I saw with my eyes dozens of
bodies of women and children.”
In video footage shot in the local mosque, a shaking camera panned
over the children’s corpses, which were laid shoulder to shoulder and
included some who looked under five years old.
In a corner, more corpses of men and women lay under patterned
blankets, including what was said to be one entire family. “We’re
being slaughtered like sheep here,” said one voice.
“Where are the UN observers?” pleaded another.
It was claimed that the majority of casualties had been inflicted at
close quarters, rather than by shelling.
Chaotic scenes followed when the group of UN observers finally
arrived in Houla on Saturday.
“The people begged the observers to come with them to evacuate the
bodies,” said Maysara Al-Hennawi, another resident. “They refused to
help us and they said that we should negotiate with the regime, and
then they left.”
Thousands of locals took advantage of the presence of the observers
to flee the area, he added, making their way through fields and
The Syrian government also broadcast footage of the casualties,
blaming them instead on “armed terrorist” groups which it said had
also killed several government troops. Damascus has long accused
activist groups of exaggerating and falsifying accounts to draw
international attention to their plight, a charge which independent
observers say has sometimes been justified.
There seemed little doubt about the veracity of the video footage of
the corpses in the latest incident, though, which surfaced amid
reports that Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general, was to
visit Damascus this week to try to patch up the ceasefire.
On Saturday, one demonstrator in Houla held up a sign reading: “Kofi
Annan is single-handedly responsible for the Houla massacre.”
The scale of the task facing Mr Annan was spelt out in a report
leaked on Friday from the current UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon,
which conceded that rebel groups now controlled “significant” parts
of some Syrian cities and that there was “considerable physical
destruction” across the country.
“There is a continuing crisis on the ground, characterised by regular
violence, deteriorating humanitarian conditions, human rights
violations and continued political confrontation,” said the report,
which is to be debated by the Security Council this week.
More than 12,600 people are now estimated to have died in Syria in
the revolt against Mr Assad’s rule, including nearly 1,500 since the
UN-backed truce officially come into effect, according to the
Observatory for Human Rights.
In a sign that the regime’s grip on the country was slipping further,
tanks were deployed by the government for the first time this weekend
in Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city. The city, a key commercial
hub, had previously been considered a pro-regime bastion, but saw
large street protests on Friday.
While neither side in the struggle is really seen to have properly
observed the ceasefire, the Free Syrian Army on Saturday warned that
unless there was an immediate halt to regime violence, it would
abandon any commitment to it at all.
“We announce that unless the UN Security Council takes urgent steps
for the protection of civilians, Annan’s plan is going to go to
hell,” a statement read.
The group’s calls for foreign military intervention are currently
opposed at the highest level. Only last week, however, the UN
explicitly urged foreign states not to supply arms to either the
government or rebel forces.
“Those who may contemplate supporting any side with weapons, military
training or other military assistance, must reconsider such options
to enable a sustained cessation of violence,” UN secretary-general Mr
Ban told the Security Council in a letter on Friday. Additional
reporting by Richard Spencer and Magdy Samaan in Cairo (© Copyright
of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2012. 05/27/12)
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