UN blames Syrian forces for shelling Houla

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The U.N. Security Council on Sunday blamed the Syrian government for attacking residential areas of the town of Houla with artillery and tank shelling and also condemned the close-range killings of civilians there — but avoided saying who was responsible for the massacre of more than 100 men, women and children.

The council said in a press statement after an emergency meeting that the "outrageous use of force" against civilians violated international law and Syrian government commitments under previous U.N. resolutions to stop all violence, including the use of heavy weapons in populated areas. It said "those responsible for acts of violence must be held accountable."

It demanded that the Syrian government immediately halt the use of heavy weapons and pull its troops out of cities and towns, and it asked U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the U.N. observer mission in Syria to continue investigating the attacks in Houla.

Britain and France had proposed issuing a press statement condemning the attack on civilians and pointing the finger at the Syrian government for Friday's massacre. But Russia called for an emergency council meeting saying it first wanted a briefing by Gen. Robert Mood, the head of the unarmed U.N. observer mission.

Russia, which considers Syria its closest Mideast ally, has used its Security Council veto power to block resolutions raising the possibility of U.N. action against President Bashar Assad. The assault on Houla was one of the bloodiest single events in Syria's 15-month uprising against Assad's regime.

Mood told the closed-door council session that U.N. observers, after revisiting the scene, had raised the death toll in Houla to 108 people, U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said outside the council chamber. Those killed include 49 children and 34 women, Ahmad Fawzi, a spokesman for international envoy Kofi Annan, told the AP. Mood said Saturday that observers confirmed from an examination of ordnance found at the scene that artillery and tank shells were fired.

The council statement "condemned in the strongest possible terms the killings, confirmed by United Nations observers, of dozens of men, women and children and the wounding of hundreds more in the village of Houla, near Homs, in attacks that involved a series of government artillery and tank shellings on a residential neighborhood."

It also "condemned the killing of civilians by shooting at close range and by severe physical abuse," but avoided assessing responsibility for the killings. The council asked Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the U.N. observer mission to investigate the attacks and report back to the council.

Before the meeting, Russia's Deputy U.N. Ambassador Alexander Pankin had questioned whether Syrian tanks and artillery were responsible for the killings. He told reporters "there is substantial ground to believe that the majority of those who were killed were either slashed, cut by knives, or executed at point-blank distance."

A press statement is weaker than a presidential statement, which becomes part of the council record, or a legally binding U.N. resolution, but it must be approved by all 15 members and therefore reflects strong Security Council backing.

In a letter to the Security Council, Ban said villages in the Houla area have been outside government control but surrounded by a heavy Syrian military presence.

When U.N. observers visited the area on Saturday, a day after the attacks, Ban said they saw 85 corpses in a mosque in Taldou and "observed shotgun wounds and wounds consistent with artillery fire." He said "the patrol also saw artillery and tank shells, as well as fresh tank tracks" and observed that "many buildings had been destroyed by heavy weapons."

Ban and his predecessor Annan, the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, issued a statement Saturday condemning the "indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force" in violation of international law and Syrian commitments to stop using heavy weapons in populated areas. They demanded that the Syrian government stop using such weapons.

The Syrian government on Sunday denied responsibility for the Houla massacre, blaming the killings on "hundreds of heavily armed gunmen" who also attacked soldiers in the area.

Activists from Houla said Saturday that regime forces had shelled the area after large demonstrations against the regime on Friday. That evening, they said, pro-regime fighters known as shabiha stormed the villages, gunning down men in the streets and stabbing women and children in their homes.

The Houla attacks have sparked outrage from American and other international leaders, and renewed concerns about the relevance of a 6-week-old international peace plan negotiated by Annan that has not stopped almost daily violence despite the presence of more than 250 U.N. observers. The U.N. put the death toll weeks ago at more than 9,000. Hundreds have been killed since.