By Arab News
The UN mission chief in Syria Maj. Gen. Robert Mood yesterday condemned the “brutal tragedy” in Houla, where he said 92 bodies, including those of more than 32 children, had been counted.
Mood said he condemns “in the strongest possible terms the brutal tragedy” in Houla in the central province of Homs, adding that UN monitors visited the area and counted 92 bodies, including “more than 32 under the age of 10.”
“Those using violence for their own agendas will create more instability, more unpredictability and may lead the country to civil war,” Mood told reporters in Damascus, describing the violence as “indiscriminate and disproportionate.”
UN observers had rushed yesterday to Houla after the reported massacre of scores of civilians there, amid renewed opposition calls for air strikes on regime forces.
The shelling of the town by regime forces began at around midday on Friday and continued until dawn on Saturday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, giving a death toll of more than 90.
State media blamed “armed terrorist gangs” for the violence.
“The circumstances that led to these tragic killings are still unclear,” said Mood. “Whoever started, whoever responded and whoever carried out this deplorable act of violence should be held responsible.”
Confirming the use of artillery and tank shells in the Houla killings, Mood also called “on the Syrian government to cease the use of heavy weapons and to all parties to cease violence in all its forms.”
But the rebel Free Syrian Army said on Saturday it could no longer commit to the cease-fire brokered by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, unless there was an immediate solution to regime violence.
“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,” an FSA statement said.
Earlier, the opposition Syrian National Council urged the UN Security Council to act urgently, while the Syrian Observatory accused the Arab and international communities of being “complicit” in the killing.
The bloodied bodies of children, some with their skulls split open, were shown in footage posted to YouTube purporting to show the victims of the shelling in the central town of Houla on Friday. The sound of wailing filled the room.
The reports of the carnage, which could not be confirmed independently, underlined how far Syria is from any negotiated path out of the 14-month-old revolt against President Bashar Assad.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius condemned the violence as a “massacre,” and said he wanted to arrange a meeting in Paris of the Friends of Syria, a group that brings together Western and Arab countries keen to remove Assad.
Syrian state television aired some of the footage disseminated by activists, calling the bodies victims of a massacre committed by “terrorist” gangs.
It also showed video of bodies with what looked like gunshot wounds to the head, sprawled on bloodstained mattresses.
A British-based opposition group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said residents of Houla were fleeing in fear of more shelling.
It said one person was killed in the northern town of Saraqeb when security forces opened fire on a protest against the killing. Activists distributed footage appearing to show similar protests in Aleppo, the largest city in the north.
A member of the fragmented exile group that says it speaks for Syria’s political opposition said Assad’s forces had killed “entire families” in Houla in addition to the shelling.
“The Syrian National Council (SNC) urges the UN Security Council to call for an emergency meeting … and to determine the responsibility of the United Nations in the face of such mass killings,” SNC spokeswoman Bassma Kodmani said.
Opposition activists said Syrian forces had opened fire with artillery on Friday after skirmishing with insurgents in Houla, a cluster of villages north of the city of Homs, itself battered by shelling.
Although Annan’s six-week old cease-fire plan has failed to stop the violence, the United Nations is nearing full deployment of a 300-strong unarmed observer force meant to monitor a truce.
The plan also calls for a truce, withdrawal of troops from cities and dialogue between the government and opposition.
Fabius said that “UN observers need to be able to complete their mission and the UN-Arab League’s joint special envoy’s exit plan has to be implemented immediately.”
In a statement Arab League head Nabil Elaraby called the killing in Houla a “horrific crime,” urging the UN Security Council — where Russia and China have protected Syria — to “stop the escalation of killing and violence by armed gangs and government military forces.” The state news agency SANA said the observers had visited Houla on Saturday, but did not elaborate. A spokeswoman for the monitoring mission did not respond to calls.
Syria calls the revolt a “terrorist” conspiracy run from abroad, a veiled reference to Sunni Muslim Gulf powers that want to see weapons provided to an insurgency led by Syria’s majority Sunnis against Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Friday that recent bomb attacks may have been the work of “established terrorist groups” and urged 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,” he told the Security Council in a letter.
The United Nations has accused Assad’s forces and insurgents alike of grave human rights abuses, including summary executions and torture.