BEIRUT -- Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan arrived in Syria on Monday amid a flurry of diplomatic activity following the massacre of more than 100 people -- most of them women and children -- in the town of Houla.
Amateur video of dead and mangled children from Houla, located northwest of the battered city of Homs, have sparked international outrage and added a new sense of urgency to a faltering peace plan devised by Annan, who is serving as joint U.N. and Arab League envoy to Syria.
The veteran Ghanaian diplomat's visit to Damascus comes a day after the U.N. Security Council in New York condemned the killings in Houla and linked the deaths in part to a government artillery and tank barrage of the town last Friday.
The administration of Syrian President Bashar Assad has denied any part in the killings and blamed the carnage on "terrorists" -- the government's usual term for anti-government rebels.
But even Russia, Syria's staunch international ally, signed off on Sunday's nonbinding Security Council statement, which also called on Syria to implement other parts of the peace plan, including ceasing the use of heavy weapons in population centers and returning troops and weaponry to their barracks.
Annan, who has the backing of Moscow, is widely expected to pressure Syria to comply with the peace plan, including a cease-fire that technically has been in effect for more than six weeks but has been widely ignored by both sides.
"I have come to Syria at a critical moment in this crisis," Annan said Monday in a statement. "I am personally shocked and horrified by the tragic incident in Houla ... which took so many innocent lives, children, women and men. This was an appalling crime, and the Security Council has rightly condemned it."
The U.N. will continue to investigate the crimes to determine who is responsible, Annan vowed. Many diplomats call the Annan plan the best chance to avoid all-out civil war and chaos in Syria, where at least 9,000 people have died in the 14-month uprising against Assad.
"I urge the government to take bold steps to signal that it is serious in its intention to resolve this crisis peacefully, and for everyone involved to help create the right context for a credible political process," Annan said. "And this message of peace is not only for the government, but for everyone with a gun."
The peace plan also includes provisions for dialogue between the government and its opponents, though each side is leery of talks with the other after months of violence and bloodshed.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seemed Monday to distance the Kremlin somewhat from Assad, its longtime ally, stating that ending the violence and starting a political dialogue was more important than who was in power in Damascus.
In addition, Lavrov told a news conference that both sides in the Syrian conflict "had a hand" in the weekend massacre in Houla. He noted that the area where the killings occurred was under rebel control but was surrounded by government forces
Russia has steadfastly resisted calls from Washington and elsewhere for regime change in Syria. Moscow is keen to avoid a repeat of last year's scenario in Libya, where a U.N. resolution provided the legal authority for a Western-led bombing campaign that helped oust Moammar Kadafi, who, like Assad, was a longtime Russian ally.
Also in Moscow, British Foreign Minister William Hague, who met with his Russian counterpart, warned that deepening turmoil could result if the Annan initiative fails.
"The alternatives are the Annan plan or ever-increasing chaos in Syria and a descent closer and closer to all out civil war and collapse," Hague said.
Meantime, on the ground in Syria, opposition activists reported renewed government shelling of the central city of Hama, long an opposition stronghold, with dozens killed. There was no immediate word from the Syrian government.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell