U.N. suspects Assad militia in Syria massacre; France pushes for sanctions


A top U.N. official said Tuesday there are “strong” suspicions that a militia loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad carried out a massacre in the town of al-Houla which has sparked international condemnation.

“There is strong suspicion that the Shabiha were involved in this tragedy in Houla,” U.N. Undersecretary General Herve Ladsous told reporters at the U.N. headquarters.

Ladsous also indicated that the Syrian government played a major part in the massacre in Houla last Friday in which at least 108 people were killed. Shabiha is usually referred to militia members loyal to Assad.

The U.N. said the number of victims from an artillery barrage “points to responsibility of the government” as only Assad’s forces have tanks and other artillery. Ladsous added that the use of knives and other hand weapons “probably points” to Shabiha involvement.

France and U.S. react to Houla

Reacting to Houla’s massacre, French President Francois Hollande said he would try to convince Russia's Vladimir Putin to back Security Council sanctions against Syria, and said military action could be possible but only if it was backed by a U.N. resolution.

“It is not possible to allow Bashar al-Assad’s regime to massacre its own people,” Hollande told France 2 television.

“Military intervention is not excluded provided it is carried out under the auspices of international law, namely via a (U.N.) Security Council resolution.”

“It is up to me and others to convince Russia and China, and also to find a solution which is not necessarily a military one,” said Hollande, who is due to meet Putin in Paris on Friday.

France on Tuesday expelled the Syrian ambassador so did other world powers in protest over the killing of at least 108 people, nearly half of them children, during the assault by regime forces near the town of Houla.

“We also have to find a solution that would not be strictly military. Pressure must be applied now to get rid of the regime of Bashar al-Assad,” Hollande added.

He also called for stronger sanctions and the need to talk with Damascus’ ally Russia.

“I will talk about it with President (Vladimir) Putin when he comes to Paris on Friday. He, along with China, had been the most reluctant on the question of sanctions.

And we must convince them that it is not possible to allow the Assad regime to massacre its own people,” said the new French leader who took office on May 15.

“I could not fail to react to this massacre in Syria,” Hollande said, stressing that his decision was taken in accord with other heads of state.

The White House on the other hand said it did not believe military intervention in Syria was the right course of action at this time because it would lead to greater chaos and carnage.

But White House spokesman Jay Carney told a briefing that the United States had not taken any options - including military action - off of the table with regard to dealing with the Syrian crisis.

Jay Carney dismissed however parallels between the NATO no-fly operation in Libya and the situation in Syria.

“There’s a significant amount of analysis you could do on why Syria is different from Libya,” he noted, saying action against Colonel Moammar Ghaddafi followed unity among regional governments and a U.N. Security Council blessing.

Earlier on Tuesday, the administration had also expelled Syria’s top diplomat in Washington and said that the Houla massacre should serve as a “turning point” in the thinking of key Syrian ally Russia.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Syrian Charge d’Affaires Zuheir Jabbour had been called in and was given 72 hours to leave the country, part of the wave of expulsions of Syrian diplomats from Western capitals.

In her daily briefing, Nuland said the United States welcomes the fact that the Russians back “a full investigation” because it will show that “regime-sponsored thugs” killed children and their parents at point-blank range.

“From that perspective, is this going to be a turning point in Russian thinking? We hope so,” she added.

Syria’s longtime ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha, was recalled to Damascus late last year and a formal replacement had not been named.

The United States in February closed its embassy in Damascus, withdrawing Ambassador Robert Ford and all U.S. diplomatic personnel due to the worsening security situation in the country.

Annan urges Assad to stop violence

Meanwhile in Syria, international envoy Kofi Annan urged Assad to “act now” to end 15 months of bloodshed, warning that the country had reached a “tipping point” as Western governments ordered out their top diplomats.

“We are at a tipping point,” Annan said after his talks with the Syrian president aimed at rescuing his troubled peace blueprint that was supposed to begin with a ceasefire from April 12 that has never taken hold.

“The Syrian people do not want the future to be one of bloodshed and division. Yet the killings continue and the abuses are still with us today,” the former U.N. chief said.

“I appealed to him for bold steps now - not tomorrow, now - to create momentum for the implementation of the plan.

“This means that the government, and all government-backed militias, could stop all military operations and show maximum restraint.”

Annan flew into Damascus on Monday hours after the U.N. Security Council adopted a statement condemning heavy shelling of residential areas by government forces during the killings in Houla.

At least 30 people were killed in new violence on Tuesday as Annan held his talks in Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

More than 13,000 people have been killed, most of them civilians, since the uprising against Assad’s regime erupted in March last year, according to the Britain-based watchdog.