Annan to visit Syria as UN condemns Houla massacre

The Syrian ambassador to the UN, Bashar Ja'afari, hit back at strong statements from his British and German counterparts

Special envoy Kofi Annan is to visit Damascus on Monday, the day after the UN condemned Syria for its use of heavy weaponry in the town of Houla, where at least 108 people were killed.

Forty-nine children and 34 women were among Friday's dead, the UN said.

Syria's ambassador to the UN rejected what he called a "tsunami of lies" from some Security Council members.

In Moscow, the top diplomats of Russia and the UK said Kofi Annan's peace plan was the "best hope" for Syria.

At a joint news conference with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said: "The alternatives are the Annan plan or every increasing chaos and a descent closer and closer to all-out civil war and collapse."

Mr Lavrov said that "both sides" in Syria's conflict had been involved in the Houla massacre.

Asked if President Bashar al-Assad could be part of the solution in Syria, he said that ending the violence was more important than who was in power.

Russia - a close ally of Syria - and China have blocked previous attempts to impose UN sanctions on Syria.

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.

The Syrian ambassador to London has also been summoned to the Foreign Office to hear the British government's condemnation of the massacre in Houla.

Fighting in Syria has continued despite the deployment of some 280 UN observers monitoring a ceasefire brokered by Mr Annan.

Opposition activists said at least 30 people were killed on Sunday when the army shelled the central city of Hama. The reports cannot be independently verified.

The BBC's Jim Muir in neighbouring Lebanon say there is no sign that the Syrian government's behaviour on the ground has changed as a result of the Houla massacre.

Sunday saw thousands of activists take to the streets in protest at events in Houla.

'Severe physical abuse'

On Sunday, the Security Council unanimously adopted the non-binding statement, calling 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," the statement said.

"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."

China also condemned the "cruel killings" in Houla.

"China feels deeply shocked by the large number of civilian casualties in Houla," foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said on Monday.

But Syria's UN ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari, accused some members of the council of trying to mislead the world.

"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.

Annan's six-point peace plan

1. Syrian-led political process to address the aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people

2. UN-supervised cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties to protect civilians

3. All parties to ensure provision of humanitarian assistance to all areas affected by the fighting, and implement a daily two-hour humanitarian pause

4. Authorities to intensify the pace and scale of release of arbitrarily detained persons

5. Authorities to ensure freedom of movement throughout the country for journalists

6. Authorities to respect freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully

Mr Ja'afari said there had been deaths, but said they had been due to close-range assassinations rather than a result of shelling. Syria has blamed the massacre on "terrorists".

Russian arms

According to activists, Syrian troops used artillery to pound homes in Houla while pro-regime militia stormed the area, killing people on the streets and in their homes.

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.

The UN on Sunday also revised the number of children who died to 49, and said the casualties included 34 women.

Gen Mood told the BBC that UN monitors were continuing their investigations in Houla.

Mr Annan is due to arrive in Damascus on Monday and hold talks with President Assad on Tuesday.

Mr Hague's visit to Moscow comes after reports that a ship carrying Russian arms for the Syrian government arrived in Syria on Saturday were described as "credible" by Western diplomats.

Under Mr Annan's plan, both sides were to stop fighting on 12 April ahead of the deployment of monitors, while the government was to withdraw tanks and forces from civilian areas.

The unrest in Syria has killed at least 10,000 people since protests against President Assad broke out in March 2011.

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