Assad digs in as West expels Syrian envoys

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Western powers expelled Syria’s envoys on Tuesday in outrage at a massacre of 108 people, almost half of them children, but a defiant President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia, showed no sign of yielding to their pressure.

The killings in the town of Houla drew a chorus of condemnation from around the world, with the United Nations saying entire families were shot dead in their homes on Friday.

“Bashar al-Assad is the murderer of his people,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told Le Monde. “He must relinquish power. The sooner the better.” His Australian counterpart Bob Carr said: “This massacre of more than 100 men, women and children in Houla was a hideous and brutal crime.”

The United States, France, Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy, Spain, Australia, the Netherlands and Bulgaria gave Syria’s envoys hours or days to leave their capitals in a coordinated move that underlined Assad’s diplomatic isolation.

Some had already expelled ambassadors or downgraded ties and so, like Washington, ordered out less senior charges d’affaires.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called the Houla attack “the most unambiguous indictment to date” of Damascus’s refusal to implement U.N. resolutions.

“We hold the Syrian government responsible for this slaughter of innocent lives,” she said.

International peace envoy Kofi Annan, in Damascus to try to save a six-week-old peace plan that has failed to stem Syria’s bloodshed, told Assad of the “grave concern of the international community about the violence in Syria”, especially in Houla, his spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said after two hours of talks in Damascus.

But Assad’s government denied having anything to do with the deaths, or even having heavy weapons in the area, despite the contrary evidence found by United Nations monitors.

Assad himself repeated to Annan Syria’s line that “terrorist groups” – Syria’s term for the rebels – were stepping up killings and kidnappings across the country.

Western countries that have called for Assad to step down are hoping that the Houla killings will tip global opinion, notably that of Syria’s main protector Russia, towards more effective action against Damascus.

Carr said Syria’s expelled charge d’affaires in Canberra was told to “convey a clear message to Damascus that Australians are appalled by this massacre and we will pursue a unified international response to hold those responsible to account”.

SHELLS AND TANK TRACKS

U.N. monitors found spent shells and fresh tank tracks in Houla, evidence of weaponry that Syria’s lightly-armed rebels do not have in their arsenal.

But the U.N. human rights office in Geneva said the bulk of the 108 mostly civilian dead in Houla had been executed at close range. Most had been shot.

Survivors told U.N. investigators that the killers were pro-Assad “shabbiha” militiamen, who in the past have assaulted and intimidated hotbeds of opposition to Assad.

“What is very clear is that this was an absolutely abominable event that took place in Houla, and at least a substantial part of it were summary executions of civilians – women and children,” said Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. human rights office in Geneva.

He said there were 49 children and 32 women among the victims. “At this point, it looks like entire families were shot in their houses.”

The report contradicted an open letter sent by Syria to the U.N. Security Council on Monday that said: “Not a single tank entered the region and the Syrian army was in a state of self-defense …

“The terrorist armed groups … entered with the purpose of killing and the best proof of that is the killing by knives, which is the signature of terrorist groups who massacre according to the Islamist way.”

Gruesome video footage distributed by opposition activists has helped to shake world opinion out of growing indifference to a conflict in which more than 10,000 have been killed, most of them opposition supporters killed by security forces.

Opposition sources said rebels had killed 20 soldiers in heavy fighting close to the border with Turkey.

They said six civilians and six rebels, including two commanders, had also been killed over the past 24 hours in fighting that began when the army launched an offensive with tanks and helicopters to retake the region around Atareb.

FOCUS ON SECURITY COUNCIL

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle urged the U.N. Security Council to revisit the situation in Syria.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said that “there is also a limit to patience, and I believe that, God willing, there is also a limit to the patience in the U.N. Security Council”.

But Russia, which on Sunday backed a non-binding U.N. Security Council text criticizing the use of artillery and tanks in Houla, but has twice vetoed tougher resolutions, showed no sign of changing its stance.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Annan in a telephone call that “all sides” must end the violence without delay, a statement said.

Russia long saw Assad’s late father as the best defender of its interests in the region, and leases a major naval base in Syria. It has suggested that foreign countries are undermining Annan’s plan by supporting the opposition.

“We are alarmed that some countries … are starting to use this event as an excuse to put forth demands of the need for military action in an attempt to put pressure on the U.N. Security Council,” Lavrov told journalists in Moscow.

“We are troubled by the ceaseless attempts to frustrate Kofi Annan’s peace plan.”

The plan calls for the government to withdraw all heavy weapons from towns and cities, followed by a cessation of fighting and dialogue with the opposition, but has stalled at the first hurdle.

Annan himself “conveyed in frank terms his view to President Assad that the six-point plan cannot succeed without bold steps to stop the violence and release detainees, and stressed the importance of full implementation of the plan”, Fawzi said.

But Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told reporters in Damascus: “Syria has not committed a single violation of Annan’s plan or the initial understanding between Syria and the United Nations.

“At the same time, the other party has not committed to a single point. This means that there is a decision by the armed groups and the opposition not to implement Annan’s plan and to make it fail.”

He said he expected Annan to pressure the foreign states backing what Syria describes as a terrorist conspiracy.

Sunni Muslim Gulf powers Saudi Arabia and Qatar favor arming the mostly-Sunni rebels fighting Assad, whose ruling cadre are mostly Alawites – members of an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.