Annan in Syria, Condems ‘Appalling Crime’ After Massacre

Posted May 28th, 2012 at 6:40 pm (UTC-5)
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International peace envoy Kofi Annan began two days of talks in Syria Monday, attempting to salvage his battered peace plan following the massacre of at least 108 civilians, including 49 children, in central Syria last week.

Annan urged “everyone with a gun” to lay down arms and help resolve Syria's 15-month conflict peacefully. He said he was “shocked and horrified” by the killings in the rebellious area of Houla on Friday, calling them “an appalling crime.”

“I urge the government to take bold steps to signal that it is serious in its intention to resolve this crisis peacefully and for everyone involved to help create the right context for a credible political process. And this message of peace is not only for the government, but for everyone, every individual with a gun.''

The former U.N. secretary-general later met Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem and said he expected to hold “serious and frank” discussions with President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday.

His arrival came after activists accused security forces of bombarding the flashpoint city Hama from Sunday into early Monday in retaliation for rebel attacks on government positions. They said the fighting killed soldiers, rebels and at least 34 civilians. The casualties could not be independently confirmed.

The U.N. Security Council issued a strongly worded statement Sunday blaming many of the deaths in Houla directly on “government artillery and tank shellings” – weapons the rebels do not have.

According to Houla residents, most of the killings were carried out by pro-government militias belonging to Mr. Assad's minority Alawite sect, who went house to house in the Sunni village killing entire families overnight on Friday.

The Syrian government has denied responsibility, instead accusing hundreds of Islamist “terrorists” armed with knives for carrying out the killings.

Activists from Houla say government forces peppered the area with mortar shells after large demonstrations against the government on Friday. They say that evening pro-Syrian fighters known as shabiha stormed Houla's three villages, gunning down men in the streets at point-blank range and stabbing women and children in their homes.

The massacre marks the deadliest single attack since Syria's anti-government uprising began about 15 months ago. Syrians continued to protest the killings Monday, as Sunni traders in Damascus' central Hamadiyah bazaar shuttered their shops.

In Washington, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, warned that such “atrocities” could trigger international military intervention. But he also stressed that the international community should exert greater diplomatic pressure on Mr. Assad before exploring military options.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday both sides are to blame for the massacre, holding armed rebels responsible for much of the violence that has escalated in recent days.

Moscow is a longtime ally of Syria and has shielded President Assad from U.N. sanctions sought by Western and Arab powers who oppose his 11-year rule.

Lavrov and visiting British Foreign Secretary William Hague agreed on the need to fully implement the Annan peace plan. He said the alternative is “ever increasing chaos in Syria and a descent … into all-out civil war and collapse.”

The United Nations says more than 10,000 people have been killed in Syria since the government began its crackdown on dissent in March 2011.