Houla Massacre: UN Resolution Condemns Syria
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The United Nations’ human rights council has overwhelmingly voted to condemn Syria for the massacre in the town of Houla last Friday and called for an international criminal inquiry into what took place.
The resolution, approved by 41 of the 47 members – with Russia, Chinaand Cuba voting against – blames pro-regime militias and government troops for the deaths of more than 108 people in the central Syrian town, most of them women and children. The UN body supported preliminary findings by international monitors who visited Houla and added to a groundswell of international criticism against Damascus, which denies its forces were responsible.
The vote followed a day of increased diplomatic rhetoric against the Syrian regime, coupled with fears that the 16-month crisis is now rapidly leading towards a broader sectarian conflict that will drag in other countries.
The US and Russia are increasingly at loggerheads about who is to blame for the deteriorating situation and what to do about it.
Hillary Clinton accused Moscow of providing weapons and cover for regime killings. “The continued supply of arms from Russia has strengthened the Assad regime,” the US secretary of state said. And by maintaining this trade, it had “raised serious concerns”.
Russian officials denied the allegations and dashed western hopes that the Houla massacre may have affected support for its key strategic ally. “Russia is not delivering any weapons that could be used in a civil war,” said President Vladimir Putin. A Russian foreign ministry spokesman later described the Houla killings as a “well-planned act by militants” who had been supplied with contraband weapons.
The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said on Friday night that “bolder steps” were urgently needed in dealing with Syria, which has been buffeted by trade sanctions, but has faced no real threat of a Libya-style military intervention since the uprising began in March last year.
William Hague, the foreign secretary, said the situation was “now so grave, so serious and so rapidly deteriorating” that no option for international action could be ruled out.
France’s president, François Hollande, said the only way to end the violence in Syria was for President Bashar al-Assad to go. “The regime has conducted itself in an unacceptable, intolerable way and has committed acts that disqualify it” from power, he said after a meeting in Germany with Putin, Syria’s principal backer and protector. Putin ducked a question about sanctions, saying they were “not always effective”.
Sir Mark Lyall Grant, the UK’s ambassador to the UN, said persuading Russia to “come off the fence” and put pressure on Damascus to back the Kofi Annan-led peace plan sponsored by the UN and the Arab League was the key to avoiding a slide into civil war. And he warned that without that support, Syria would descend into a bloody civil war that would almost inevitably spread to Lebanon and beyond and become a “proxy” war involving Iran.
However, Whitehall is not thought to have received any recent instructions to work on a military plan. Nato has repeatedly ruled out sending its forces to Syria.
Sunni Arab states Saudi Arabia and Qatar have supported sending arms to opposition fighters but have told western officials that they would not launch military attacks without the direct involvement of US or European states.
The UN’s human rights chief, Navi Pillay, on Friday repeated her request for the security council to refer the Assad regime to the international criminal court.
Echoing concerns about a spillover into neighbouring states, especially Lebanon and Iraq, Pillay told the UN human rights council that “the situation in Syria might descend into a full-fledged conflict and the future of the country, as well as the region as a whole, could be in grave danger”.
The Annan peace plan has continued to falter. Activists said more than 40 people were killed in nationwide violence on Friday, much of it centred in Homs province.
Neither regime forces, nor the opposition Free Syria Army, have abided by the plan, which called for the regime to stop using heavy weapons and for fighters to pull back from civilian areas.
Syria has said it will back an international inquiry into what took place in Houla as well as two subsequent mass killings. It claimed that foreign-backed Islamists managed to infiltrate the hinterland surrounding Houla and launch an attack on its residents.
Houla residents have insisted that the attackers came from neighbouring Allawite villages and were members of a fiercely loyal regime militia known as the Shabiha.
The US described Damascus’s claims as a “blatant lie” and accused the Shabiha of carrying out numerous atrocities throughout the crackdown, which according to some estimates has claimed at least 12,000 lives.

The Houla massacre: reconstructing the events of 25 May

Friday 25 May began like any other Friday in the Syrian opposition town of Houla. Local people gathered up the anti-regime placards they had inscribed with revolutionary slogans in black marker pen and took them to a mosque near the town square.
Around mid-morning in the village of Taldou, on the outskirts of Houla, they knelt in the streets for prayers, half an hour of piety and reflection before a weekly ritual of rage and defiance.
But the placards were never used. A few moments after the prayers ended at around 1.15pm, witnesses say, shots were fired by regime artillery. The shells marked the start of an offensive in which more than 100 people were killed, most of them women and children.
On Thursday, the Syrian government blamed the deaths on “terrorist gangs”. The Guardian has been speaking to Houla residents and survivors to reconstruct the events of that day.
Maysara, a local elder who doubles as a leader in the Syrian Revolutionary Council, said the shelling lasted for about three hours. “Just as we were getting ready to start the demonstration, the shelling started,” he said. Everyone ran to take cover in nearby buildings.
The people of Houla had been attacked before, but the men who had gathered noticed that something was different this time. “The [intensity of the] shelling was unusual,” said a second local, Abu Aruba. “It clearly signalled that something was happening.”
The barrage was followed by a movement of security forces, according to Maysara. “The regime army was gathering near the water plant [on the southern outskirts of town],” he said. “We knew they were planning something big.”
Abu Aruba estimated that around 300 men gathered at a Syrian military depot near the water plant. According to several accounts, the Shabiha and regime troops rallied after members of the Free Syria Army attacked a checkpoint earlier in the day.
The men at the water plant were a mix of security forces and the feared loyalist Shabiha militia that has been at the vanguard of the 16-month nationwide crackdown on dissent.
The rain of shellfire prevented most of the men from returning to their homes, where their families were sheltering indoors. “Nobody could get to them,” said another elder, Abu Jaffour, who watched the barrage from the fields to the west of Taldou. “The places that were being hit were impossible to reach.”
Video footage recorded on mobile phones by terrified Taldou locals shows some of the men trying to rescue the women, children and elderly men who were trapped in their homes, some of which were being splintered by artillery and tank shells. The rescuers scrambled to an area that had just been hit by a shell, killing at least two people who had been in the open. The video shows more shells crashing down as they tried to drag the victims to safety.
Sometime between 3.30pm and 4pm, according to locals, the shelling eased. There was, however, to be no reprieve.
Around that time, the Shabiha militias started approaching Taldou and a village to the north, Kufrlaha. Witnesses say the Shabiha gathered near the water plant and the military depot nearby, before moving to the villages of Foulah and Qabou, two of four villages of the Allawite sect that surround the exclusively Sunni town of Houla.
“We looked outside and saw the army checking houses in the neighbourhood,” said Rasha al-Sayed Ali, 29, whose family home is in the south of Taldou. “They were near the water plant and one of the tanks started firing on ou eighbourhood. They were trying to give cover to soldiers who were starting to break into the houses. There was knocking on our door and my father answered,” Sayed Ali said.
She displayed her father’s military identity card and told the men that he was a retired soldier. She said one of the men then grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and pushed her and four other women who were in the house into the corner of a room while they beat her father.
“Then they brought my father into the room and shot him in front of us,” she said.
“I saw my father’s brains spill from his head.” One of the security men fired his gun into the ceiling, she said, and shouted: “We took revenge for you, Imam Ali” – a reference to the most revered imam of the Shia Islamic faith.
“They were security men and Shabiha,” she said. “One of them then said to the other, what are we going to do with the children? The other replied shoot them before the elders.”
Sayed Ali was shot in the chest. “I fell to the floor. After a while, I looked around to see that all my brothers and my mother were sinking in blood. I started to crawl and could hear the cry of my cousin who was only one month old. The baby’s mother was dead. Four of my sisters and my pregnant sister-in-law were killed. So was ou eighbour. My brother’s baby was two months old and sleeping upstairs. They shot her too.”
According to the UN, women and children were mown down during the rampage. At least 49 babies and children were killed and at least 20 women.
Ten-year-old Maha Abdul Razziq was inside the family home on the south-western outskirts of Taldou when the militiamen arrived.
“I was with Ghufran, my two-and-a-half-year-old cousin, in one of the rooms, when one of the security men broke into the house,” she said. “He was holding a knife.
“He said ‘go into the corner’,” Maha said. Then the armed man removed gold bracelets from her cousin’s wrist and shot them both. “I was shot in my leg and arm and fell down,” she said. After first missing Ghufran, Maha said, the gunman returned to shoot her in the chest, killing her.
Apart from her father who had been working in Lebanon, Maha was the only member of her family to survive. Sobbing as she spoke, she named each of the young relatives that had been killed.
“I saw the three of my [siblings] dead. Yassein, who is five years old, Yasser and my sister Maya, who was three years old.
“My mother was killed by Shabiha. They were shot all together. I went out of the house to see the bodies of the daughters of ou eighbour Sameen.”
Only one of them was still alive.
She continued naming more relatives, all from the Abdul Razziq family.
The homes of the Abdul Razziq family were the first that the militias reached when they approached Taldou. More than 60 of the massacre victims are thought to have belonged to this single extended family.
The Shabiha approached from the south-east – from the direction of Foulah and Qabou, according to numerous local accounts.
“The Shabiha took advantage of the fact that there was no one there to protect them,” Abu Aruba said. “There was no one there on the outskirts. They just slaughtered everybody.”
By early evening, much of the killing had stopped, the witnesses say. According to the residents of Houla, most of the militiamen had returned to Foulah and Qabou. A small group, however, remained behind. It is this group which is believed to have gone looking for the Sayed family at about 3am on Saturday morning.
According to Ali Sayed, the sole survivor of a rampage that killed his family, the militiamen asked for all the men in his family by name. “They spoke with an Allawite accent,” he told the Guardian. “They said they were from Foulah. They were Shabiha. And they were proud of it.”
Many of the wounded in Houla are still being treated in makeshift medical clinics. Among them are people whose families worked with regime security forces or the local police.
“They were targeted because they were linked to the regime,” one of the nurses treating the wounded men said. “The Shabiha wanted to create the impression that other forces were responsible.”
Damascus on Thursday claimed that 600-800 armed men with heavy weapons had entered the Houla villages, slaughtering residents, then fleeing.
The people of Houla have no patience for the regime’s version of what took place last weekend. “Look,” said Abu Jaffour, “the armed men came under the cover of shellfire from villages completely under regime control. They are Allawite villages, 500 metres to 2km away from us. And they want the world to believe that hundreds from al-Qaida had taken refuge there. They are the terrorists and they will pay for this.”
As the sectarian tensions unleashed by what happened in Houla continue to boil, the people of the town resumed their weekly ritual on Friday. With no sound of gunfire, nor militias on the horizon, they took to the streets to demand the end of the regime.

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