After meeting in a closed-door emergency session Sunday, the 15-member Security Council issued a statement directly accusing Syria of carrying out the killings “of dozens of men, women and children and the wounding of hundreds more . . . in attacks that involved a series of government artillery and tank shellings on a residential neighborhood.”
The “outrageous use of force” against civilians constitutes a violation of international law and of Syria’s commitment to abide by a U.N.-mandated peace plan, the statement added, calling on Syria to immediately comply with the Security Council resolution endorsing the plan by withdrawing all of its troops and tanks from residential areas.
Russia and China, which have in the past blocked criticism of Syria’s behavior, signed on to the statement, signaling their strongest condemnation yet of the Syrian government. But Russia’s deputy U.N. envoy, Alexander Pankin, told reporters after the session that the events leading up to the incident remained “murky.” He raised the prospect that a “third force” had carried out the killings to undermine the U.N. monitoring mission on the eve of Monday’s visit to Damascus by Kofi Annan, the joint U.N.-Arab League special envoy.
Meanwhile, Germany’s U.N. ambassador, Peter Wittig, said there appeared to be no question that the government was responsible. There is “a clear footprint of the government in this massacre,” he said.
The exact details of the killings remained unclear, with the chief of the U.N. mission in Syria telling diplomats in New York that he believed the majority of the deaths were caused by government shelling, and residents of Houla claiming that most of those killed had been shot, hacked or bludgeoned to death in their homes by pro-government militias.
The U.N. statement noted that some of the victims had been killed by “shooting at close range and by severe physical abuse.”
The Syrian government denied responsibility, saying the killings were the work of “armed terrorists,” a phrase repeatedly used by authorities in Damascus to describe the opposition.
Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said at a news conference in Damascus that “hundreds of gunmen” carried out the attacks, according to the official Syrian Arab News Agency. They were armed with “heavy weapons, like mortars, machine guns and antitank missiles, which are newly used in the confrontation with state forces,” he said.