In what is being described as a brutal atrocity, Syrian pro-government forces attacked the village of Houla in Homs province in central Syria over the weekend, killing more than 90 people, including 32 children.
Pro-government forces first used tanks, mortars, and heavy machine guns to shell the village. Then fighters stormed the village and killed survivors. Victims included entire families in their homes. Pictures showed children with bullet holes in their temples; others had their throats cut. The attack occurred despite the presence of UN observers in Syria as part of a UN-sponsored peace plan.
The deaths were confirmed by General Robert Mood, the head of the UN team of 300 observers. “My patrols went into the village. I can verify that they counted 32 children under 10 killed. In addition, there were more than 60 adults dead.” UN observers also confirmed the use of artillery and tank shells.
The Syrian government denied responsibility for the attack. Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi called it “the tsunami of lies.” He denied that the Syrian armed forces were responsible and accused Al Qaeda. “Al Qaeda-linked terrorist groups committed two horrible massacres against a number of families in the countryside of Homs province.” Makdissi also rejected the idea of an armed opposition in the country. “There is no armed opposition in Syria. There is either an intellectual opposition, and we welcome their participation in national dialogue, or there are armed terrorist gangs that refuse the political resolution.”
The international community condemned the attack. The UN Secretary General and the Arab league’s UN envoy jointly condemned the “appalling and brutal crime,” saying “[t]hose responsible for perpetrating this crime must be held to account.” EU foreign policy minister Catherine Ashton was “appalled by the reports of the brutal massacre.” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it an “atrocity” and said Assad’s “rule by murder and fear must end.” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius condemned “the atrocities committed daily by Bashar Al Assad on his own people,” and said that “[w]ith these new crimes his murderous regime plunges Syria further into horror and threatens regional stability.” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he was “shocked and horrified” at the killings.
The rebels’ Free Syrian Army warned that it would no longer be committed to the UN-sponsored peace plan unless there was swift UN intervention to protect civilians. Britain stated that it was in urgent talks with allied nations on “a strong international response.” France promised to host a Friends of Syria meeting later this week.
At the same time, US President Obama is in talks with Russia over a plan that would oust President Assad. The plan calls for a negotiated political settlement that would satisfy Syrian opposition groups but that could leave parts of President Assad’s government intact. The success of the plan hinges on the agreement of Russia, one of Mr. Assad’s few remaining allies.