Kofi Annan yesterday met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for crunch talks amid global outrage over the Houla massacre of more than 100 people, as the UN said most of them had been summarily executed.
On his arrival in Damascus on Monday, UN and Arab League peace envoy Annan called the “tragic” massacre in the central region “an appalling moment with profound consequences.”
The international community has reacted with horror over the deaths of at least 108 people at the village of Taldu near Houla on Friday and Saturday, among them 49 children and 34 women, many shot dead at point-blank range.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) estimated on Tuesday that fewer than 20 of the 108 Houla victims were killed by artillery and tank fire.
“Most of the rest of the victims in Taldu, one of the areas of Houla, were summarily executed in two separate incidents,” UNHCHR spokesman Rupert Colville said.
Local residents blamed the executions on a paramilitary group that “essentially supports the government forces,” he added.
French President Francois Hollande yesterday announced the expulsion of the Syrian ambassador in response to the Houla killings, and said Paris would host a new meeting of the Friends of Syria group in July.
Australia also expelled Syria’s top diplomat over the “hideous and brutal” massacre, with Foreign Minister Bob Carr saying he expected other countries to follow suit.
“This is the most effective way we’ve got of sending a message of revulsion to the Syrian government,” Carr said, adding Syrian charge d’affaires Jawdat Ali and another unnamed official had 72 hours to leave the country.
Germany said it would expel the Syrian ambassador, national agency DPA reported, saying that he too has 72 hours to leave, while British officials said the UK is expelling three Syrian diplomats.
Assad received Annan in Damascus, state news agency SANA reported, a day after the former UN chief said he intended to hold “serious and frank discussions” with Syria’s president. Annan did not elaborate, but his comments reflected intensifying pressure on his mission aimed at ending almost 15 months of bloodshed in Syria.
The Assad government has been using brutal force to crush an Arab Spring-inspired uprising, triggering a low-level insurgency by some opponents who have taken up arms.
The violence has killed more than 13,000 people, most of them civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based watchdog. And it has persisted despite the presence of more than 280 UN military observers as part of Annan’s six-point blueprint aimed at ending the conflict.
At least 19 people were killed yesterday as fierce fighting was reported across Syria, including seven in central Homs Province where last week’s massacre occurred, the Observatory.
Israeli yesterday branded Assad a “murderer” and urged support for the Syrian people.
“The reactions until now have been declarations; unfortunately, declarations don’t stop murders and assassinations,” Israeli President Shimon Peres said at a joint news conference with his German counterpart Joachim Gauck.
Additional reporting by AP