UN condemns Syria massacre - but questions remain on killings

Syria Unrest: The UN Security Council today condemned the 'outrageous' use of heavy weapons by the Syrian government in the massacre at Hula, but questions remain on many of the killings carried out by small arms at short range.

People gather at a mass burial for the victims purportedly killed during an artillery barrage from Syrian forces in Houla in this handout image dated May 26, 2012. U.N. observers in Syria have confirmed that artillery and tank shells were fired at a residential area of Houla, Syria, where at least 108 people, including many children, were killed, the U.N. chief said on Sunday in a letter to the Security Council.   REUTERS/Shaam News Network/Handout (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CONFLICT TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY CIVIL UNREST) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS *** Local Caption ***  AMM09R_SYRIA-UN-BAN_0528_11.JPG
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New York// The UN Security Council early today (1am UAE time) condemned the "outrageous" use of heavy weapons by the Syrian government in the massacre at Hula that killed 108 people, but questions remained about who was responsible for many of the killings carried out by small arms at short range.

The 15-member council in a statement to the press "condemned in the strongest possible terms" the massacre, confirmed by United Nations observers, of "dozens of men, women and children and the wounding of hundreds more" in Hula. The attacks "involved a series of government artillery and tank shellings on a residential neighbourhood" in the city, the statement said.

"Such outrageous use of force against civilian population constitutes a violation of applicable international law and of the commitments of the Syrian government" under the Annan peace plan that includes withdrawal of heavy weapons from populated areas, the council said.

"The members of the Security Council demanded that the government of Syria immediately cease the use of heavy weapons in population centres and immediately pullback its troops and its heavy weapons from in and around population centres and return them to their barracks," the statement said.

But the council also "condemned" the killing of civilians by "shooting at close range and by severe physical abuse" without laying blame on any party.

It called on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to investigate the atrocity that is dashing lingering hopes that the Annan plan could succeed. The plan calls for a ceasefire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons, access for humanitarian aid and the news media, the freeing of political prisoners and a political dialogue leading to democratic elections.

Just as soon as it was issued, the press statement was open to different interpretations by Western council nations on the one hand, and the Russians and Syrians on the other. Russia had initially rejected a Western draft introduced on Saturday night because it said responsibility for the massacre was unclear. Moscow argued that a third party, namely militants such as al-Qaeda, may have been involved, a Western diplomat said.

Russia requested instead a briefing to the Security Council via satellite by Gen Robert Mood, head of the 250-man UN observer team, and Herve Ladsous, the head of UN peacekeeping before it would agree to a statement.

But even after it was issued, a sharp disagreement remained on who was responsible for the killings at short range and what the circumstances were that led to the massacre.

Gen Mood briefed the council that residents told observers the killings with small arms were carried out by government thugs know as the shabiha, but a Russian diplomat said there was no forensic evidence to back these claims, suggesting opposition extremists could have carried out the attacks.

It was difficult to accept that Sunni militants would attack Sunni civilians in a town under opposition control, however, a Western diplomat said.

Bashar Ja'afari, the Syrian ambassador to the UN, told reporters that the incident began after Friday prayers when 200 to 300 opposition fighters gathered from several points in Hula with pick-up tucks armed with anti-tank missiles, mortars and machine guns. Mr Ja'afari said they began attacking local police in the town for nine hours on Friday, before moving to burn a hospital and attack farms and houses in a neighboring village.

While he did not deny that the Syrian army fired tank rounds into a neighborhood of Hula, he said, "These shells would not have killed these innocent civilians who were killed at short range."

Mr Ja'afari charged that "armed groups have initiated these kinds of attacks from the beginning of the crisis." He suggested they were carried out in Hula to undermine peace envoy Kofi Annan's visit to Damascus on Tuesday as well as to provoke international armed intervention. "One of the reasons for perpetuating these crimes might be to increase the internationalisation of the Syrian crisis," he told reporters. He said those found guilty of the killings would be held accountable by the Syrian government.

Gen. Mood told the Security Council that the circumstances leading to the killings remained "murky," diplomats said. He also said it was impossible to tell how many of the 108 victims were killed by shelling and how many by close-range gunfire. Many of the bodies could not be examined for forensic evidence because they were either interred or wrapped for burial, diplomats quoted Gen. Mood as saying in his closed-door briefing to the council.

But Western diplomats dismissed these concerns. "It does not matter what the circumstances leading up to the atrocity was, it was an atrocity and it was committed by the Syrian government," Mark Lyall Grant, the British ambassador, told reporters. He added that despite the incident, "The Annan plan is not dead but it has not led to what it was supposed to: political dialogue."

German Ambassador Peter Witting told reporters: "General Mood and Herve Ladsous confirmed today very straightforwardly that there is clear evidence of the use of heavy weapons, shelling, even traces of tanks in that area. So the evidence is clear, it is not murky. There is a clear footprint of the government in the massacre."

Mr Witting called for a commission of inquiry to look into possible war crimes. Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights also on Sunday called for an investigation into potential crimes against humanity committed in Hula.

In a letter to the Security Council on Sunday, Mr Ban referred to the killings as "appalling crimes, which involved indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force," and said they were "a flagrant violation of international law."

He said the incident bode ill for the future of the UN observer mission. "In the wake of these events, the UN observers are facing increasing criticism for not stopping the violence and, in some quarters, even being blamed for an increase," Mr Ban wrote to the council.

"There is a misconception, difficult to correct, about the role of unarmed military observers and what they can and cannot do," Mr Ban wrote. "This puts the United Nations presence on the ground in a perilous position," both in carrying out their mission and for their "personal security."

Western diplomats said the council must now "restrategize" in the wake of the Houla massacre. They will be meeting in New York this week to come up with a new approach, Mr Grant said, well aware however that Russia would block more forceful measures, such as UN sanctions, against Damascus.

Mr Annan is to brief the Security Council from they Syrian capital on Wednesday after his meetings with government officials there.