AMMAN: Peace envoy Kofi Annan deplored the killing of at least 108 people in the Syrian town of Houla as “an appalling crime” Monday and urged President Bashar Assad to prove he wants a peaceful resolution to the crisis racking his country.
Assad’s forces killed at least 41 people in an artillery assault on the city of Hama, activists said, shortly after the U.N. Security Council condemned Friday’s massacre in nearby Houla.
With international criticism growing of Assad’s methods in trying to crush a 14-month-old uprising, now accompanied by a lightly armed insurgency, Annan visited Damascus for talks on his faltering peace plan.
He explicitly urged the Syrian government to “take bold steps to signal that it is serious in its intention to resolve this crisis peacefully” before adding: “This message of peace is not only for the government, but for everyone with a gun.”
Russia and China, which had previously vetoed U.N. resolutions condemning Assad, both approved a nonbinding text in New York Sunday that criticized the use of artillery and tank shells on homes in Houla – weapons the rebels do not have.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry, however, in an open letter to the Security Council, denied tanks played any part and blamed instead hundreds of armed Islamists, some armed with knives. Syrian troops were simply on the defensive against “terrorists.”
China said it was “deeply shocked by the large number of civilian casualties in Houla, and condemns in the strongest terms the cruel killings of ordinary citizens, especially women and children.”
But by declining to blame the regime alone, Russia and China kept their distance from Western and Sunni-led Arab countries that say Assad must step down.
Russia and China have resisted joining Western and Arab League sanctions against Assad. Both reaffirmed Monday that Annan’s plan, accepted by both sides in the conflict, was the only way forward and Russia suggested that the violence in Houla had been intended to sabotage his visit.
“The six-point plan has to be implemented comprehensively, and this is not happening,” said Annan, who met Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem Monday and is scheduled to meet Assad Tuesday.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a letter to the Security Council that he hoped Syria would use Annan’s visit to “fundamentally change course and choose diplomacy over guns to ensure that the legitimate aspirations for freedom, dignity and prosperity of the Syrian people are met.” Ban said a cluster of villages in the Houla area had been outside government control until Friday.
Syrian U.N. Ambassador Bashar Jaafari reiterated his government’s assertion that the massacre was the work of “armed terrorist groups” – the Syrian government’s term for the rebels.
He dismissed a “tsunami of lies” from the British, French and German envoys, who blamed the government for the massacre.
“We are dealing with a situation in which both sides evidently had a hand in the deaths of innocent people,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a news conference with visiting British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron discussed Syria by phone, condemning the “senseless murderous brutality of the Damascus regime” as a threat to regional security.
While both endorsed the Annan plan, they also called for an “orderly democratic transition” for Syria. Hollande said France would call a meeting in Paris of the Friends of Syria – Western and Arab countries that want Assad’s rule to end.
Britain summoned Syria’s envoy to express its condemnation of the massacre. Senior Foreign Office official Geoffrey Adams said that unless the Annan plan was implemented in full, the international community would “take further quick and robust action in response.”
Russia has accused the U.S. and Europe of pursuing Libya-style regime change in Syria, and is wary of endorsing any measures that could become a prelude to armed intervention.
Washington has explicitly said Assad must step down, and General Jack Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN television: “Of course we always have to provide military options and they should be considered.” But he stressed that the international community should use economic and diplomatic measures first to try to push Assad to “make the right decision.”
The Syrian National Council, the main umbrella group of exiled op position figures, Monday made its strongest call yet for foreign intervention.
“It’s high time for concrete intervention to stop the daily massacres against the Syrian people,” it said in a statement. “The council appeals to all friends and brothers of the Syrian people to supply it immediately with effective means of self defense before it is too late.”