UN rights body condemns Syria over massacre

Associated Press Modified: June 1, 2012 at 6:45 pm •  Published: June 1, 2012
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BEIRUT (AP) — The U.N.'s top human rights body voted overwhelmingly Friday to condemn Syria over the slaughter of more than 100 civilians last week, but Damascus appeared impervious to the crescendo of global condemnation following a string of horrific massacres.

Syria's most important ally and protector, Russia, voted against the measure by the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. Russia has refused to support any move that could lead to foreign intervention in Syria, Moscow's last significant ally in the Middle East.

New bloodshed was reported across Syria on Friday, with troops firing on protesters and more execution-style killings coming to light, while U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan urged Syrian President Bashar Assad once again to stop the violence.

As Russian diplomats in Geneva dismissed the resolution as "unbalanced" and voted against the text, Russian President Vladimir Putin promised to press the Syrian government for an end to the violence and insisted a political solution was still possible despite mounting frustration over the lack of diplomatic progress.

"It requires a certain professionalism and patience," Putin said in Germany.

Russia, along with China, has twice used its veto power to shield Syria from U.N. sanctions.

Although Syria has come under deep international isolation since its forces launched a ferocious crackdown on dissent nearly 15 months ago, the May 25 massacre in a cluster of villages known as Houla has brought a new urgency in calls to the crisis.

"Syria is on the edge, it is on the edge of a catastrophic situation, if we can imagine one even worse than the current situation," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on the sidelines of a conference in Turkey.

A majority of countries in the 47-nation rights council supported a U.S.- and Arab-led resolution condemning the "outrageous use of force against the civilian population" in Houla.

"We believe that the acts committed by the Syrian regime may amount to crimes against humanity and other international crimes, and demonstrate a pattern of widespread and systematic attacks against civilian populations," Hague said.

He said evidence from U.N. observers and independent witnesses confirmed that security forces shelled Houla and that "government militia then went house to house slaughtering entire families without compassion or mercy."

New satellite images posted on the website of U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford showed signs of what look like freshly dug mass graves. A senior intelligence official speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to do so publicly, confirmed the authenticity of the images.

Only Russia, China and Cuba voted against the resolution, with Uganda and Ecuador abstaining. The Philippines was absent.

The resolution blamed "pro-regime elements" and government troops for the massacre. But Moscow echoed the Syrian government's explanation for the killings, blaming rebels that the Kremlin says are trying to stir up a civil war.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said the Houla massacre was a well-planned attempt to thwart a political solution to the crisis and "lead the situation in Syria to a new circle of gory violence."

Moscow's pro-Syria stance is motivated in part by its strategic and defense ties to Damascus, including weapons sales. Russia also rejects what it sees as a world order dominated by the U.S.

Speaking late Friday in Paris, Putin said Russia was not backing the Syrian regime, but trying to "reduce the violence to a minimum."

"We are not for Bashar Assad or for his adversaries. We want to arrive at a situation where the violence is ended and the possibility of a civil war is completely avoided," he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she doesn't quite buy the claim that Moscow is neutral in the Syrian conflict, saying in Oslo that Russia is viewed in the United Nations, in Damascus and around the world "as supporting the continuity of the Assad regime."

"The continued supply of arms from Russia has strengthened the Assad regime," and "that Russia has maintained this trade ... has raised serious concerns," she said.

Activists say as many as 13,000 people have died in Assad's crackdown against the anti-government uprising, which began in March 2011 amid the Arab Spring. One year after the revolt began, the U.N. put the toll at 9,000, but many hundreds more have died since.

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