Syria condemned for Houla massacre and shelling by UN

The Syrian ambassador to the UN, Bashar Ja'afari, responded to strongly worded statements from his British and German counterparts

The UN Security Council has condemned the use of heavy weapons by Syria's government during a massacre in which 108 people were killed and 300 injured.

Some 34 children were killed in Friday's massacre, which has sparked international outrage.

The UN said those responsible for the killings must be held accountable.

Syria's UN envoy condemned what he called a "tsunami of lies" being told by some members of the Council, saying Syrian forces were not to blame.

The Security Council unanimously adopted the non-binding statement, which calls for the Syrian government to withdraw its heavy weaponry from residential areas and return them to barracks.

"The members of the Security Council condemned in the strongest possible terms the killings... in the village of (Houla), near Homs, in attacks that involved a series of government artillery and tank shellings on a residential neighbourhood," according to the statement read by Azerbaijan's deputy UN ambassador Tofig Musayev.

"The members of the Security Council also condemned the killing of civilians by shooting at close range and by severe physical abuse," the statement continued.

"Such outrageous use of force against civilian population constitutes a violation of applicable international law."

Analysis

This is a strong statement from a body that nearly always has to compromise to reach agreement.

Going into the meeting, Syria's big-power ally, Russia, made it clear that it needed to be convinced of the Syrian government's culpability for what had happened at Houla. It appears to have been persuaded.

The language both at the UN and from the administration in Washington is very strong. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that President Assad's rule by murder and fear must come to an end.

But diplomats stress that a political process is the best hope for progress.

One British official pointed to Foreign Secretary William Hague's trip to Moscow on Monday and the appearance of UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan at the Security Council later this week, as the next steps in trying to take the political process forward.

But Syria's UN ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, said some members of the council were trying to mislead the world about Syria's role in the massacre.

"Neither [UN observer mission head Maj Gen Robert] Mood nor anybody else told the Security Council in the informal session that he would blame the Syrian government forces for what happened.

"It is really pitiful and regrettable that some members of the council came out just a few minutes after Gen Mood had finished his briefing to mislead you, to tell you lies about what happened," he said.

Meanwhile, opposition activists say at least 30 people were killed on Sunday when the army shelled the central city of Hama. These reports cannot be independently verified, as Syria severely restricts journalists' freedom of movement.

Russia's role

On a video link from Damascus, Gen Mood told the Security Council that 108 people had been killed and 300 injured in Houla - up from a previous figure of at least 90 dead.

He was initially quoted as saying the new figure was 116 dead, but this was later corrected by diplomats.

Gen Mood told the BBC that "the circumstances leading to the killing are still unclear" but were being investigated by UN monitors in Houla.

"I have had patrols on the ground all the day yesterday afternoon and today we are gathering facts on the ground and then we will draw our own conclusions," he said.

Opposition activists say the Syrian military bombarded Houla after demonstrations. They say that some of the victims were killed during the shelling, while others were shot dead at close range by the regime militia known as the "shabiha".

The Syrian government has denied any involvement, blaming "terrorists", and denied that its tanks were in the area at the time.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, who is travelling to Moscow for talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, said Britain would lean on Russia to get Syria to implement the peace plan of UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

"It's not in the interests of Russia, just as it's not in the interests of anybody in the world, for Syria to descend into an even bloodier situation and into full-scale civil war - and that is now the danger," he said.

Denial

Russia's deputy ambassador to the United Nations told journalists that it was not clear who was responsible for the deaths - and denied charges that most of the deaths were caused by army shelling.

"There are substantial grounds to believe that the majority of those who were killed were either slashed, cut by knives, or executed at point-blank distance," he said.

Syria's foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said there was a clash in the area on Friday afternoon between security forces and armed terrorists. He said that army tanks had not been in the area.

Meanwhile, a Syrian official has dismissed threats by the UK government to ban members of Syria's Olympic delegation linked to human rights abuses.

UN's Major General Robert Mood: "The disproportionate use of force is unacceptable"

The White House said it was horrified by the credible reports of the massacre.

In April, Syria pledged to implement a six-point plan brokered by Mr Annan, including a ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weaponry from urban areas.

Mr Annan is expected to visit Damascus on Monday for talks.

But the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) said it could no longer commit to the ceasefire unless the Security Council could ensure that civilians were protected.

In a statement, the FSA said that if urgent steps were not taken, then Mr Annan's plan was "going to hell".

It said killings in Syria were taking place "under the eyes of the UN observers," and called on states to "announce the failure of the Annan plan".

The UN says that at least 10,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Mr Assad began in March 2011.

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