Kofi Annan says Syria is at 'tipping point' after Houla massacre

Annan

On the heels of a meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad, United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan warned that the crisis was "at a tipping point" after the killings of more than 100 people last week in the town of Houla, now said to be carried out in door-to-door shootings.

"The Syrian people do not want the future to be one of bloodshed and division," Annan told reporters in Damascus. "Yet the killings continue and the abuses are still with us today."

The peace plan he brokered earlier this year, which includes halting hostilities, was not being carried out, Annan stated.

Annan urged Assad to "be bold for the Syrian people" by halting all its military operations, freeing detainees and respecting the right to peaceful protest. "We all remember the violence stopped before, on the 12th of April; there was calm," he said. "There is no reason it cannot stop again."

While Annan pushed again for peace, the U.N. human rights office shared new details about the  attack that left 108 people dead last week in Houla. Most of the victims were shot at close range, the office said. The rest -- fewer than 20 of the 108 victims -- were killed by artillery and tank fire.

Bloody images and chilling stories of the Friday attacks have renewed outrage worldwide over the continued slayings as the government tries to crush the ongoing uprising against Assad.

“What is very clear is this was an absolutely abominable event that took place in Houla, and at least a substantial part of it was summary executions of civilians, women and children,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights spokesman Rupert Colville was quoted as saying by the Associated Press. “At this point, it looks like entire families were shot in their houses.”

U.N. monitors visited the town over the weekend, counting bodies and hearing horrific stories of the violence. Witnesses blamed thugs sympathetic to the Syrian government for the executions; the Syrian government said "terrorists" -- its term for the opposition forces -- were at fault.

Though the U.N. has yet to definitively say who was responsible, U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said Tuesday that the army and militia loyal to Assad were likely at fault, especially in cases where heavy weaponry was used, Reuters reported.

"The Security Council has made clear the need for these killings to be investigated and for those responsible to be held accountable. I also note that the government of Syria is organizing its own investigations and that is very encouraging," Annan said Tuesday.

Others were less enthusiastic about the idea of a Syrian government investigation. “There’s no way a Syrian military commission can credibly investigate this horrendous crime when so much evidence suggests pro-government forces were responsible,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch's  Middle East and North Africa director, in a statement issued Monday about the killings.

Despite the Syrian denials, the United States, Britain, France, Germany and other countries said Tuesday they were ejecting Syrian diplomats in a coordinated condemnation of the killings.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: U.N. international envoy Kofi Annan speaks at a news conference in Damascus on Tuesday. Credit: Youssef Badawi / European Pressphoto Agency

 
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