May 27, 2012


[In some of the worst carnage since the uprising began 15 months ago, Syrian tanks and artillery pounded Houla, a rebel-controlled village near Homs, a center of the resistance, during the day, opposition groups said, with soldiers and pro-government fighters storming the village and killing families in their homes late at night. Included in the death toll, which rose Sunday afternoon, were at least 32 children.]
By Neil MacFarquhar
Shaam News Network, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The bodies of a man and a girl, who villagers said were among those
killed by government security forces on Friday, were placed on the vehicle

of United Nations observers upon their arrival in Houla on Saturday
BEIRUT, Lebanon — The United Nations Security Council on Sunday unanimously condemned the Syrian government for its role in the massacre of at least 108 people in Houla over the weekend, even as Syria blamed others for the killing.
The United Nations action was the strongest yet allowed by Russia, a permanent Security Council member who has blocked many attempts to criticize the government of President Bashar al-Assad, its close ally.
“We unequivocally deny the responsibility of government forces for the massacre,” Jihad Makdissi, the spokesman for the Syrian Foreign Ministry, said at a news conference in Damascus, the capital. He reiterated the standard government line that the deaths were caused by a terrorist attack, and he said he regretted that the United Nations and other governments seemed to have accepted the opposition’s version of events.
In some of the worst carnage since the uprising began 15 months ago, Syrian tanks and artillery pounded Houla, a rebel-controlled village near Homs, a center of the resistance, during the day, opposition groups said, with soldiers and pro-government fighters storming the village and killing families in their homes late at night. Included in the death toll, which rose Sunday afternoon, were at least 32 children.
At a United Nations Security Council meeting, Russia initially blocked a collective statement condemning the Syrian government, diplomats said Sunday, and demanded a closed briefing from Gen. Robert Mood, the head of the United Nations observer mission, on assigning blame.
Four council members — the United States, Germany, France and Britain — had prepared a draft statement condemning the Syrian military for battering civilian neighborhoods with tank shells, using language that echoed two previous United Nations statements. The secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon issued a joint statement with Kofi Annan, his envoy. Mr. Annan is scheduled to be in the Syrian capital for talks on Monday.
But Russia said it wanted to hear directly from General Mood because the question of who might have carried out the massacre was not clear, the diplomats said. “It seems they want to deflect criticism from the Syrian authorities,” said one Security Council diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivities involved. It sought at least a hint that “third parties” were involved, echoing the Syrian government line that Al Qaeda is heavily involved in the uprising, a position the opposition rejects.
Amateur videos from Syria that were said to be taken after the attack showed row after row of victims, many of them children with what appeared to be bullet holes in their temples. Other videos showed gruesome shrapnel wounds caused by what activists said was a barrage of shelling that started Friday in response to demonstrations after the weekly prayer service and that continued Saturday.
Mr. Makdissi said the army did not send tanks into Houla and that security forces did not leave their positions but had remained in a defensive posture. Instead, he said, hundreds of gunmen armed with machine guns, mortars and antitank missiles began attacking government positions in a skirmish that lasted much of the day and well into the night. Three soldiers were killed and 16 wounded, he said.
In saying that tanks did not enter Houla, Mr. Makdissi seemed to avoid the thrust of the accusations made by the United Nations that the government had indiscriminately shelled civilian neighborhoods.
After monitors visited the village on Saturday, counting at least 92 bodies, they said they found spent tank shells, which they cited as evidence that the Syrian military had violated its part of a truce in firing heavy artillery at civilians.
International officials largely blamed the government. Mr. Makdissi said that Syrian forces would not fire on civilians. Yet they have had a history of doing so throughout the uprising.
Mr. Makdissi said a judicial military committee had been set up to investigate and report back in three days. He noted that Mr. Annan was due in Damascus for talks on Monday. Arab League officials in Cairo told The Associated Press, however, that the Syrians had barred Mr. Annan’s deputy, Nasser al-Qidwa, a former Palestinian foreign minister.
Kuwait, which holds the Arab League presidency, has called for an emergency meeting of its foreign ministers to discuss the attack. Syrian ties with the league were strained last year after its membership was suspended. In addition, Mr. Qidwa is the nephew of Yasir Arafat, the former Palestinian leader who died in 2004 and with whom Damascus was often at odds.
There was widespread international condemnation of the massacre. The British government said Sunday that Syria’s chargĂ© d’affaires had been called to a meeting on Monday with the Foreign Office so that London could stress its condemnation of the episode. A White House official called the attack “a vile testament to an illegitimate regime that responds to peaceful political protest with unspeakable and inhuman brutality.”
Gory images posted online — particularly the scene of rows of dead children smeared with blood — prompted an emotional outpouring of antigovernment demonstrations across Syria and calls for sectarian revenge.
Activists said that much of the slaughter had been carried out by pro-government thugs, or “shabiha,” from the area. Houla is a Sunni Muslim town, while three villages around it are mostly Alawite, the religion of Mr. Assad and whose adherents are the core of his security forces. A fourth village is Shiite Muslim.
A man in a black knitted mask who appeared on one YouTube video, for example, said it was time “to prepare for vengeance against this awful sectarian regime.”
The rebel Free Syrian Army, the loose federation of armed militias across the country, issued a statement saying it was no longer committed to the United Nations truce because the plan was merely buying time for the government to kill civilians and destroy cities and villages.
“We won’t allow truce after truce, which prolongs the crisis for years,” the statement said.
The Syrian government blamed “terrorists,” its catchall phrase for the opposition, for killing the civilians.
State television repeatedly broadcast pictures of members of one household who had been massacred, calling the deaths “part of the ugly crimes that the terrorists are committing against the Syrians with the financial support of some Arab states and others.”
SANA, the state-run news agency, said that “armed terrorist groups attacked law-enforcement forces and civilians” in the nearby town of Teldo, which prompted security forces to “intervene and engage the terrorists.”
But the direct accusation from the United Nations, which is monitoring the tattered April 12 cease-fire, rebutted the government’s standard claim that outsiders or their domestic dupes are to blame.
Syria sharply limits access to the country for foreign correspondents, making independent verification of events there difficult. But there has been a pattern of similar government assaults in recent months against villages sympathetic to the opposition.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton focused on what she described as the “vicious assault that involved a regime artillery and tank barrage on a residential neighborhood.”
“Those who perpetrated this atrocity must be identified and held to account,” she said in a statement. “And the United States will work with the international community to intensify our pressure on Assad and his cronies, whose rule by murder and fear must come to an end.”
Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, issued a statement accusing Syria’s government of committing “new massacres” and added that France would organize a meeting of the roughly 80-member Friends of Syria group as soon as possible.
The British foreign secretary, William Hague, said Britain was looking for a strong international response and hoped to convene an “urgent” session of the United Nations Security Council “in the coming days.”
The Syrian National Council, the umbrella opposition organization in exile, condemned the killing and called for three days of mourning.
An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Damascus, Syria, Hwaida Saad from Beirut, and Ellen Barry from Moscow.