32 children among nearly 100 killed in Syria
(CNN) — More than 92 people, including 32 children younger than 10, were killed Friday by artillery and tank shells in the Syrian village of Houla, a spokesman for the joint special envoy to Syria said Saturday.
United Nations observers went to Houla and viewed the bodies Saturday, a day after opposition activists reported a massacre there at the hands of the Syrian regime. The activists said entire families were killed.
Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, the head of the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria, said the attacks happened overnight but that the circumstances that led to the deaths is unclear.
“This indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force is unacceptable and unforgivable,” Mood said in a statement provided by Ahmad Fawzi, the spokesman for envoy Kofi Annan. “The killing of innocent children and civilians needs to stop.”
Later, Mood told CNN that observers counted 85 bodies and that 34 of the dead were children under the age of 10. The discrepancy with the earlier number could not immediately be explained.
“Whoever started, whoever responded and whoever took part in this deplorable act of violence should be held responsible,” Mood said, stressing that unarmed U.N. observers are just “one small ingredient” in the effort to end the ongoing violence.
In a joint statement with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Annan said he is contacting Syrian authorities “to convey in the clearest terms the expectations of the international community.”
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“This appalling and brutal crime involving indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force is a flagrant violation of international law and of the commitments of the Syrian government to cease the use of heavy weapons in population centers and violence in all its forms,” the joint statement by Ban and Annan said. “Those responsible for perpetrating this crime must be held to account.”
Meanwhile, a network of Syrian opposition activists, the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, blamed “forces and armed militias” of the Syrian government for “a new massacre” in Houla.
“This barbaric act was preceded by the regime’s mortar shelling in the town,” the LCC said in a statement. “The campaign ended when the armed militias slaughtered entire families in cold blood.”
Graphic video posted on YouTube purportedly shows the lifeless bodies of several small children killed in Houla. They are spread on the floor amid blankets, caked in blood. One child is turned to reveal a head wound.
“Look, these are just children. It is a massacre!” a man shouts.
CNN could not independently confirm the authenticity of the video, nor can it confirm reports from within the country because the government strictly limits access by foreign journalists.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the Houla killings.
“Those who perpetrated this atrocity must be identified and held to account,” Clinton said in a statement. “And the United States will work with the international community to intensify our pressure on (Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) and his cronies, whose rule by murder and fear must come to an end.”
The network of Syrian opposition activists reported at least 88 people, mostly children, were killed Friday by the Syrian regime’s shelling in Houla. That toll differed from that of the U.N. observers.
Rebels leaders interpreted the latest massacre as evidence that a United Nations cease-fire and peace plan aren’t working.
“After all these massacres, there is no way to continue lying to ourselves and wait to see if the cease-fire will work,” Lt. Abdullah Oudah of the Free Syrian Army told CNN.
President al-Assad, Oudah said, “is playing for time, that’s all.
“From now on, we are going to carry out our responsibility and respond to the regime very hard with systematic operations against the vital interests, which make the regime weaker,” Oudah said.
Lt. Bassim al-Khaled, a spokesman of the rebel Free Syrian Movement, said more bloodshed is forthcoming. The al-Assad government is using the cease-fire and peace plan “to kill more people and is trying to crush the uprising,” al-Khaled said.
“So the only language this regime is going to understand is the language of the gun. Wait and see, we will make them pay for each drop of blood which was shed,” al-Khaled said.
Britain condemned the massacre, calling Saturday for an urgent session of the U.N. Security Council and a full account of the “appalling crime.”
More regime attacks Saturday killed 60 people across the country, including 25 in Homs, just south of Houla, according to the Local Coordination Committees.
A caller to Syrian state television Saturday blamed the Houla massacre on criminal gangs and terrorist groups. An analyst on the station said al Qaeda and its branches are to blame and that “the Syrian military is the defender of the nation.”
The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported the observers’ visits Saturday to several towns and cities but made no mention of their visit to Houla or the deaths there.
The Local Coordination Committees earlier Saturday decried the world’s “apparent blindness” to the violence in Syria.
Months of U.N. Security Council attempts to resolve the crisis have failed to have any effect.
Ban said Friday the full cadre of 300 U.N. observers authorized by the Council will be in Syria in the coming days.
Ban issued a sobering report Friday on the Syrian crisis, detailing “continuing reports of a stepped-up security crackdown by the authorities that has led to massive violations of humans rights … including arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearance and summary execution of activists, opponents and defectors.”
In a letter to the head of the U.N. Security Council, obtained by CNN, Ban said he is deeply concerned that the Syrian violence has not stopped despite the presence of the monitors and the agreement by both sides to a peace plan.
Some of the violence has abated when the monitors are around, he said, but across the country the level of it is high.
The monitors have seen “considerable” physical destruction across Syria, Ban said. They have also seen continued Syrian Army troop concentrations and heavy weapons in population centers, in direct violation of the peace plan forged by Annan in March.
Both sides blame the other for the destruction the monitors have seen, Ban said.
As reports of deaths mount every day, so do the frustration and anger.
“It’s unbelievable that we have 7 billion people on this planet, and they all can’t do anything about what they are seeing on TV,” activist Abu Emad told CNN from Homs early Saturday.
“Do something,” he begged the international community.
U.N. officials say more than 9,000 people, mostly civilians, have died and tens of thousands have been uprooted since the uprising began in March 2011. Opposition groups report a death toll of more than 11,000 people.
Since al-Assad’s government and opposition forces accepted Annan’s peace plan in March, at least 1,635 people have been killed, the LCC said Saturday.
Following the reported massacre in Houla on Friday, the rebel Free Syrian Army implored members of the international “Friends of Syria” group to form a military coalition to launch airstrikes against al-Assad forces.
Meanwhile, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) said Saturday that “al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups” massacred a couple and their six sons and a father and son in the rural village of al-Shumariyeh village in the Homs province.
The agency also said similar terrorist groups massacred a family of seven, including three children, in the same province’s rural town of Taldo. The groups also burned houses and crops and blamed the army for bombarding the area, SANA reported. The terror group also sabotage the National Hospital in the area and attacked a law enforcement headquarters, SANA said.
CNN’s Mohammed Jamjoom in Beirut, Omar Al Muqdad in Turkey, Elizabeth Joseph, Richard Roth, Saad Abedine, Holly Yan, Karen Smith and Michael Martinez contributed to this report.