LONDON -- Governments in Europe and elsewhere announced Tuesday that they were expelling top Syrian diplomats in a coordinated response to the killings last week of more than 100 civilians, mostly women and children, in an attack on a town in the embattled country.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague announced that his country was ordering three Syrian diplomats to leave within seven days as part of a concerted international effort to pressure the government of President Bashar Assad to accept a U.N.-brokered peace plan and to express "horror at the behavior of the regime," in particular the attack Friday on the town of Houla.
[Updated, 8:29 a.m., May 29: In Washington, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland confirmed the action, which she said was taking in coordination with Australia, Canada, Spain, Italy, France and Germany.
"In response to the May 25 massacre in the village of Houla, today the United States informed Syrian Charge d’Affaires Zuheir Jabbour of his expulsion from the United States," Nuland said in a statement. "He has 72 hours to leave the country."]
The German government quickly confirmed that it had given the Syrian ambassador 72 hours to leave the country. Spain said it was expelling Damascus' ambassador to its country along with four other diplomats within 72 hours.
France and Italy acknowledged that they would also be part of the effort.
The British Foreign Office said the Syrian Embassy in London would remain open, but that the charge d'affaires and two other senior diplomats had been asked to leave.
The Syrian government has denied responsibility for the deaths in Houla, where the United Nations has said that 49 children and 34 women were among 108 people killed in one of the deadliest incidents of the 14-month uprising against Assad's rule. Syrian officials instead blamed the attack on "terrorists," their common description of the opposition forces.
Syrian officials have expressed support for the peace plan negotiated by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan, who was back in Damascus this week for further discussions. But the government has failed to meet key conditions of that plan, including withdrawing troops and tanks from urban areas and opening talks with the opposition.
"We've been seeking in recent days to increase the pressure on the Assad regime and to get the message across to them that the world is appalled by the violence that has continued by the behavior of the regime and the murder of so many innocent people, including in the terrible massacre at [Houla]," Hague said. "Time will run out for the Annan plan and ... they have to make the choice of what they are going to do."
The European Union was also considering "a further tightening of sanctions on Syria," Hague said, adding he had had discussions with Russian officials as a part of the drive to increase international pressure on the Syrian regime to implement the Annan plan.
Syrian teams signed up for the 2012 Olympics to be hosted by London in July could be banned from the Games, it was reported over the weekend. Though Syrian Olympic Committee Chairman Mowaffak Jomahas has said Britain has no right to ban Syrian athletes, Hague said Tuesday that "it will be up to us who comes into the United Kingdom."
Military intervention in Syria was not being considered, Hague said. "There is no support, no unanimity about any intervention in the U.N. Security Council," he said. "All our efforts are going to support the Annan plan and to try to bring about a peaceful transition."
-- Janet Stobart
Photo: A banner decrying the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad is seen outside the Syrian Embassy in London on Tuesday. Credit: Andy Rain / EPA