The United Nations Security Council condemned on Monday a massacre of dozens of Syrian civilians, including children, in the country's western village of Houla.
“The members of the Security Council condemned in the strongest possible terms the killings, confirmed by United Nations observers, of dozens of men, women and children and the wounding of hundreds more in the village of [Houla], near Homs, in attacks that involved a series of government artillery and tank shellings on a residential neighbourhood,” the Council members said in a statement issued following a closed-door emergency meeting in New York.
“The members of the Security Council also condemned the killing of civilians by shooting at close range and by severe physical abuse,” the statement said.
General Robert Mood, the head of the U.N. observer mission, told the Council members during a video link that more than 100 people, including some 30 children under the age of 10, had been killed in Houla, a cluster of villages in the Homs province, on Friday and Saturday.
An amateur video posted online showed people in Houla burying their slaughtered relatives in mass graves, as well as bloodied bodies of children, some with their skulls split open. The brutal images triggered shock around the world, raising questions over the viability of a peace plan proposed by the joint UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan to stop 15 months of bloodshed in Syria.
Syrian activists have blamed the massacre on troops loyal to embattled President Bashar al-Assad. They said regime forces had fired mortar shells into the area following large anti-government demonstrations on Friday, and then stormed the villages, gunning down men and stubbing women and children in their homes.
But the Syrian authorities have strongly denied their involvement in the massacre, saying “terrorists” were to blame for the tragedy.
The Council’s statement said “such outrageous use of force against civilian population constitutes a violation of applicable international law and the commitments of the Syrian Government under United Nations Security Council Resolutions 2042 and 2043 to cease violence in all its forms, including the cessation of use of heavy weapons in population centers.”
The statement called on the Syrian regime to “immediately” withdraw heavy weapons and troops from residential areas, reiterating that “all violence in all its forms by all parties must cease.”
The statement also reaffirmed the Security Council’s “strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria” and its support for Annan's peace plan.
Diplomats quoted Mood as saying the observers had confirmed that artillery and tank shells were fired at residential houses in Houla.
But Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi insisted on Sunday that "no Syrian artillery or heavy weaponry" had been used in Houla, adding that Syria was being subjected to a “tsunami of lies.”
He told journalists that "hundreds of armed men" had attacked Houla on Friday and clashed with government forces.
"They used heavy weapons and anti-tank rockets," he was quoted by Al Jazeera as saying. "That's why we lost some of our men from the security forces.”
He said a special commission had been set up to investigate the massacre, and that results were due within three days.
Russia's deputy UN Ambassador Alexander Pankin did not rule out that the massacre, which took place ahead of Annan’s planned visit to Damascus, was a “provocation,” adding that foreign special services could have been involved.
“Such a possibility exists, because this [massacre] occured under unclear circumstances,” he told Russian journalists in New York.
“We cannot suggest that this [massacre], carried out on the eve of Kofi Annan’s visit, corresponded to the Syrian government’s interests,” he said, adding “therefore, it is in the interests of those being instigated towards armed struggle in order to hamper the peace process.”
He also said it was wrong to blame the Syrian government alone for the tragedy.
“Government troops did not enter the village, they were deployed around it,” he said.