French president says Syria's Assad has to go
PARIS – France's president said Friday that only the departure of Bashar Assad would end the violence in Syria, saying his regime had acted in an "intolerable way."
Francois Hollande, who was elected in May, again advocated for pressure and sanctions to force out the Syrian leader, continuing France's tough line on the country, where an anti-government uprising has raged for more than a year.
"The regime of Bashar Assad has conducted itself in an unacceptable, intolerable way and has committed acts that disqualify it" from power, Hollande said after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Syria's principal backer and protector.
"There is no possible exit from this situation except with the departure of Bashar Assad," he added.
International pressure is mounting on Syria, including condemnation Friday from the United Nation's top human rights body for the massacre last week of more than 100 civilians, apparently at the hands of government troops and pro-regime thugs.
"Sanctions are part of the indispensable and necessary pressure," Hollande added, while recognizing that the country is hurtling toward civil war.
In March, the U.N. put the death toll from the uprising and crackdown at 9,000, but many hundreds more have died since.
Putin ducked a question about sanctions, saying that they were "still not effective."
He also would not be drawn on whether Assad should go, saying only that a negotiated solution that was acceptable to the Syrian people would be acceptable to Russia.
"We want to reduce the violence to the minimum," he said. "We are not for Bashar Assad or for his adversaries. We want to arrive at a situation where the violence is ended and the possibility of a civil war is completely avoided."
Russia, along with China, has twice shielded Assad's regime from U.N. sanctions over his crackdown on protests.
The two were among the few countries that voted against Friday's resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Council, condemning the massacre in the cluster of villages known as Houla.
Moscow has also backed the Syrian government's conclusion that "extremists" and "militants" — words Damascus uses to refer to rebel fighters — were behind the killings.
According to preliminary U.N. investigations, at least 49 children under the age of 10 were among the dead — with entire families apparently executed in their homes. U.N. investigators have said there is strong evidence that pro-regime fighters were behind the massacre.
Friday's resolution instructs an expert panel to conduct an "international, transparent, independent and prompt investigation" and echoes calls by U.N. rights chief Navi Pillay for the U.N. Security Council to consider referring Syria to the International Criminal Court.
On his first trip abroad since returning to the presidency, Putin told reporters in Germany that he still believed a political solution in Syria was possible. "It requires a certain professionalism and patience," he said.
Jordans reported from Geneva. Associated Press writers Geir Moulson in Berlin, Nataliya Vasilyeva and Mansur Mirovalev in Moscow, and Sarah DiLorenzo in Paris contributed.