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Security Council condemns mass Syria killing by government artillery, tank shelling

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The U.N. Security Council on Sunday unanimously condemned “in the strongest possible terms” the Syrian government for heavy-weapons attacks on the town of Houla, the site of a massacre of at least 108 people, including many children, the council president said.

And on Monday, China called for an investigation to identify those responsible of the Houla massacre.

“China is deeply shocked and strongly condemns the incident,” said foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin, after Russia questioned whether Damascus was behind the violence.

“China... calls for an immediate investigation into this issue and to find the perpetrators. This incident again shows that Syria should waste no time to implement the ceasefire and end the violence,” he added.

“We urge relevant parties in Syria to immediately and comprehensively uphold relevant Security Council resolutions and Annan’s six-point proposal, stop all violence, properly protect innocent civilians, ease tensions there and push forward the political resolution of the Syrian issue,” said Liu.

The U.N. statement agreed by the 15-nation council, including Syrian ally Russia, said the attacks “involved a series of government artillery and tank shelling on a residential neighborhood” and again demanded that President Bashar al-Assad withdraw heavy weapons from Syrian towns.

“The Security Council also condemned the killing of civilians by shooting at close range and by severe physical abuse,” said the statement, which was read out after the council's three-hour emergency meeting by Azerbaijan's Deputy U.N. Ambassador Tofig Musayev.

Earlier, Russia’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations had cast doubt on the culpability of Syria’s government for the massacre.

“We need to establish whether it was the Syrian authorities,” Igor Pankin told reporters at the United Nations. “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.”

The White House had said that the mass killing of civilians, in al-Houla was a further evidence of an inhuman and illegitimate Syrian government.

“These acts serve as a vile testament to an illegitimate regime that responds to peaceful political protest with unspeakable and inhuman brutality,” a White House spokesman said.

Britain and France had proposed issuing a press statement condemning the attack and pointing a finger at the Syrian government, but Russia told Security Council members it could not agree and wanted a briefing first by Norwegian Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, the head of the U.N. observer team in the country. Russia has been Syria's most powerful ally during the uprising, and along with China has used its veto power to shield Damascus from U.N. sanctions.

The massacre in Houla on Friday cast fresh doubts on the ability of an international peace plan put forward by envoy Kofi Annan to end Syria's 14-month-old crisis.

The brutality of the killings became clear in amateur videos posted online that showed scores of bodies, many of them young children, in neat rows and covered with blood and deep wounds. A later video showed the bodies, wrapped in white sheets, being placed in a sprawling mass grave.

Activists from the area said the army pounded the villages with artillery and clashed with local rebels after protests Friday. Some activists said pro-regime thugs later stormed the area, doing the bulk of the killing by gunning down men in the streets and stabbing women and children in their homes.

The Syrian government rejected that narrative Sunday, painting a vastly different picture.

Speaking to reporters in Damascus, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said Syrian security forces were in their local bases Friday when they were attacked by “hundreds of heavily armed gunmen” firing mortars, heavy machine guns and anti-tank missiles, staring a nine-hour battle that killed three soldiers and wounded 16.

The soldiers fought back, but didn't leave their bases, he said.