Houla deaths: Western states to expel Syrian diplomats

Victims of the Houla massacre included dozens of children

29 May 2012 Last updated at 15:17

Major Western powers say they are expelling senior Syrian diplomats following the killing of 108 people in the Houla region of Syria on Friday.

France, the UK, Germany, Italy, Spain, Canada and Australia all announced expulsions, with the United States expected to follow suit.

Most of the victims were summarily executed, the UN says.

Residents said pro-government shabiha militia had entered homes and opened fire indiscriminately.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told UN-Arab League peace envoy Kofi Annan in Damascus that terrorists had stepped up their operations across Syria, including killing and kidnapping. His remarks were quoted by state TV.

The success of Mr Annan’s peace plan, he said, depended on halting terrorist actions and stopping arms smuggling.

UN human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said initial investigations had suggested that most of those killed in the village of Taldou, near Houla, were summarily executed.

He said 49 children and 34 women were among the victims.

Eyewitnesses told the BBC that pro-government shabiha militiamen had carried out the killings. Survivors said they had hidden or played dead.

UN observers who visited Taldou said many of the victims had been killed by close-range gunfire or knife attacks.

Syrian leaders insist that the massacre was the work of “terrorists”, aiming to derail the peace process and provoke intervention by Western powers.

Russia, which supplies arms to the Syrian government and has blocked UN resolutions calling for action against Damascus, has blamed both sides for Friday’s massacre.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed concern that “certain countries” were beginning to use the Houla massacre “as a pretext for voicing demands relating to the need for military measures to be taken”.
‘Heinous and brutal’

Western leaders have expressed horror at the killings, and have begun moves to raise the diplomatic pressure on the Assad government.

Canada denounced the Syrian government’s “heinous and murderous acts” while Australia described the Houla massacre as a “hideous and brutal crime”.

Spain talked of “unacceptable repression” and France’s new Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, described President Assad as “the murderer of his people”.

The French government said “the murderous folly” of the Damascus regime threatened regional security.

But despite the show of protest, it is unclear whether the mass diplomatic expulsions will change much on the ground, Bridget Kendall, the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent, says.

Syria’s charge d’affaires in London has been given seven days to leave the country.

The British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said the US would also be expelling Syrian diplomats on Tuesday.

“The international community is appalled by the violence that has continued, by the behaviour of the regime, by the murder of so many innocent people,” he said.

Ahead of his meeting with President Assad in Damascus, Mr Annan called the massacre “an appalling moment with profound consequences”.

A meeting of the so-called Friends of Syria group is to meet in France in July, President Francois Hollande’s office said.

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