- Thugs loyal to Syrian president’s regime slaughter up to 50 children
- At least 92 dead and over 100 others wounded
- Soldiers ‘used tanks, mortars and heavy machine guns’ on town of Houla
- Amid claims victims were stabbed, William Hague heads demands for emergency UN summit
PUBLISHED: 04:49 EST, 26 May 2012 | UPDATED: 17:06 EST, 26 May 2012
On a bedroom floor, the bodies of Syrian children lie like discarded dolls. The eyes of some are still open and, hauntingly, their expressions are frozen in fright.
No older than eight, a blood-soaked girl wearing a headscarf and pink diamante belt, is face to face with a younger boy.
Around them, a dozen others, some with their arms outstretched, lie shoulder to shoulder.
All were massacred on Friday, claim activists, when thugs loyal to President Bashar Assad swept through towns and villages in the country’s central province of Homs.
Men are said to have been killed on the streets, while women and children were shot and stabbed in their homes.
The images, almost impossible to bear, came from film taken by an amateur and posted online.
In the background the voice of an adult can be heard crying: ‘Oh God, oh God, oh God.’
Activists say more than 100 people were killed in the attacks, of which around 50 were said to be children – many of them aged under ten.
Other amateur videos posted online showed dead children covered with sheets and blankets. In one, at least a dozen children, some with holes in their heads and faces, lay on what appeared to be the floor of a mosque.
‘They killed entire families, from parents on down to children, but they focused on the children,’ claimed one activist. He added that residents, fearing further attacks, spent yesterday fleeing the area.
Worst hit was Houla, north-west of the city of Homs, the main city of Homs province.
It was peppered with mortars in one of the bloodiest single events in Syria’s 15-month-old uprising.
Activists from the region said regime forces attacked Houla following a large anti-regime protest on Friday. After the bombardment, pro-government thugs known as shabiha raided the area with appalling ferocity.
Syria’s opposition also accused security forces of killing 47 women and children in the besieged city of Homs.
Hadi Abdallah, a Syrian activist, said the bodies of 26 children and 21 women, some with their throats slit and others bearing stab wounds, were found in the Karm el-Zaytoun and Al-Adawiyeh neighbourhoods.
‘Some of the children had been hit with blunt objects on their head, one little girl was mutilated and some women were raped before being killed,’ he said.
Last night Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain is to push for a ‘strong international response’ to the Houla massacre, which he described as ‘appalling’.
Mr Hague said the UK will press for an urgent session of the United Nations Security Council to co-ordinate the response to the crime.
‘There are credible and horrific reports that a large number of civilians have been massacred at the hands of Syrian forces in the town of Houla, including children,’ he said.
Mr Hague urged President Assad’s regime to grant ‘full and immediate’ access to Houla for UN monitors and to stop all military operations, as demanded by UN special envoy Kofi Annan. France’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius and the Arab League also condemned the assault.
The attack on Houla left one of the highest death tolls in one specific area since an internationally brokered ceasefire came into effect last month.
In one incident, according to reports, a family of six was killed when their home received a direct hit.
The activists said the Houla killings appeared to be sectarian, raising fears that Syria’s uprising, which started in March 2011 with protests calling for political reform, is edging closer to the type of sectarian war that tore apart its eastern neighbour, Iraq.
The Houla villages are Sunni Muslim. Activists said that the pro-regime forces all came from an arc of villages south of Houla that are populated by Alawites, members of the offshoot of Shia Islam to which Assad belongs.
‘Our area is Sunni and the surrounding villages are Alawite,’ said one activist, Abu Walid. ‘I don’t like to talk about sectarianism, but it was clear that this was sectarian hatred.’
Syrian state TV blamed the ‘massacre’ in Houla on ‘armed terrorist groups’ – a term that it often uses for the opposition.
The claims and videos could not be independently verified. The Syrian government bars most media from operating inside the country.
Anti-regime groups, which have expressed frustrations with the international community’s reluctance to intervene in Syria’s conflict, strongly condemned the killings.
SYRIAN GENERAL: I WILL GO TO THE LONDON OLYMPICS
A Syrian general close to the Assad regime has declared he is determined to attend the Olympics.
General Mofwaq Joumaa defended President Assad and insisted his country, which he said was ‘peaceful’, should be allowed to compete in the London Games.
Joumaa is president of Syria’s Olympic committee and was due to lead a 31-strong delegation to the opening ceremony.
Although Foreign Office officials are not aware of any evidence linking him directly to human rights abuses, it is unlikely he will be allowed into Britain. Troops loyal to Assad have killed some 9,000 people since the start of the insurgency 15 months ago.
Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne said: ‘Entry will be refused where an individual’s presence at the Games or in the UK would not be conducive to the public good.’
Officials are examining Syria’s lists of athletes who require visas for the UK to determine if any have close links with the Assad regime.
It places Britain in an awkward position – barring athletes for the abuses of a political regime would undoubtedly upset the International Olympic Committee. At the same time, welcoming anyone tainted by the violence would be politically embarrassing.
‘We are a peaceful country,’ General Joumaa told The Times. ‘The Syrian people have love in their hearts for the British people.’
He said he would complain to the IOC if he was denied entry. ‘If anyone was blocked because of their military background, that would be unfair,’ he said. ‘Anyone who has a military background in Syria, they are an ordinary citizen of this country.’
An IOC spokesman said: ‘Ultimately it is for the UK authorities and/or the EU to decide who is or is not allowed into the UK. We would respect any such decision.’
Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be excluded on similar grounds.
But other controversial figures seem likely to attend, including Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa, son of the King of Bahrain. He has been accused by human rights activists of kicking a protester for over two hours and forcing him to lick his boots, claims he denies.
World powers have fallen behind the UN peace plan, which is supposed to lead to dialogue between all sides on a political solution. The US and European nations say they will not intervene militarily. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Libya have said they will arm Syria’s rebels, although no country is known to be doing so now.
A spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Council called on the UN Security Council ‘to examine the situation in Houla and to determine the responsibility of the United Nations in the face of such mass killings, expulsions and forced migration from entire neighbourhoods’.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights released an unusually harsh statement, saying Arab nations and the international community were ‘partners’ in the killing ‘because of their silence about the massacres that the Syrian regime has committed’.
The UN has sent more then 250 military observers to Syria to try to salvage the ceasefire, and a spokesman for the team said they visited Houla yesterday. The observers said they counted at least 90 bodies, including 32 children.
UN mission head Major-General Robert Mood said that the killing in the town was ‘indiscriminate and unforgivable’.
But one Houla activist said the observers’ visit would not help and could cause the government to attack again. ‘As soon as they came we asked them to leave because many areas they go to get attacked,’ said Abu Suleiman. ‘We don’t want them to get near us.’
A local activist, Abu Yazan, said the massacre began with shelling and, later, pro-regime thugs stormed the village, raiding homes and shooting at civilians. It followed an anti-regime demonstration after prayers on Friday.
Homs has been among the hardest hit provinces in a government crackdown since the uprising against Assad’s regime began in March last year. The United Nations said several weeks ago that 9,000 people had been killed in Syria. Hundreds more have died since.
The new violence in Houla is also a further blow to a UN peace plan for Syria that was supposed to start with the ceasefire between government troops and rebels on April 12 but has never really taken hold.
Despite the daily ceasefire violations, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said that there was no ‘plan B’ for the Annan initiative.
Meanwhile, in a letter to the Security Council, he said the Syrian opposition controlled ‘significant parts of some cities’.
He said that ‘established terrorist groups’ could have been behind some of the recent bomb blasts in Syria judging from the sophistication of the attacks. He warned that the situation remained ‘extremely serious’ and urged states not to arm either side in the conflict.
Earlier this month, a bombing in Damascus left 55 dead in an attack which the government blamed on Al Qaeda. The attack came amid mounting fears that the terrorist group was taking advantage of the conflict to gain a foothold.
Mr Ban said Syria ‘has not ceased the use of, or pulled back, their heavy weapons in many areas’ – one of the requirements of the peace plan. Mr Annan’s six-point peace agreement ordered a cessation of violence on April 12. While casualties appeared to fall after the truce, the fighting quickly resumed to previous levels.
The northern city of Aleppo, a major economic hub, has remained largely supportive of Assad throughout the uprising but anti-regime sentiment has been on the rise in recent weeks.
On Friday Syrian forces fired tear gas and live ammunition to disperse thousands of protesters in Aleppo calling for Assad to be ousted, killing five people, activists said.
KIDNAPPINGS FUEL FEARS LEBANON IS GETTING DRAWN INTO CONFLICT
A group of Lebanese Shiites who were kidnapped in Syria were freed, three days after gunmen abducted the men as they returned from a religious pilgrimage.
The kidnappings fuelled fears that Lebanon is getting drawn into the bloody conflict in neighbouring Syria.
In the hours after Tuesday’s abductions, protests erupted in Beirut’s Shiite-dominated southern suburbs, where residents burned tyres and blocked roads.
Lebanese prime minister Najib Mikati confirmed the men were released, saying they were ‘in good health and on their way to Beirut’.
The pilgrims were believed to have been returning from a trip to visit holy sites in Iran when they were abducted.
The hostages were believed to be 11 Lebanese and one Syrian driver. Lebanese and Syrian officials have blamed Syrian rebels for the kidnappings, but nobody has claimed responsibility.
Sunnis form the backbone of the Syrian revolt, which has unleashed seething sectarian tensions.
Assad and the country’s ruling elite belong to the tiny Alawite sect, which is an offshoot of Shiism.
The leader of Lebanon’s powerful Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which has stood by the Syrian regime, welcomed the pilgrims’ release. Speaking by satellite link, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said the group’s support for Syria is firm.
He said of the kidnappings: ‘If you aim to put pressure on our political stance, this will not make any difference.’
The abductions came at a time of deep tension in Lebanon over Syria. The countries share a web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries, which can quickly turn violent. Clashes linked to the Syria conflict have killed at least 10 people in Lebanon the past two weeks.
Nasrallah’s comments appeared to be an attempt to de-escalate the recent tensions.
‘I also thank all the people who controlled their emotions and responded to our call for calm, wisdom and patience,’ he said, referring to a speech he gave earlier this week calling on his supporters not to take to the streets in anger.