UN condemns Houla massacre and calls for inquiry


THE UN Human Rights Council yesterday condemned the May 25th massacre of 108 Syrians, including 49 children. It urged the authorities to end all violenceand called for an independent investigation.

The resolution, proposed by the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, was adopted by 41 votes in favour, including Ireland. However, it failed to achieve consensus because Russia, China and Cuba voted No, arguing that the text prejudged the inquiry by blaming “pro-regime elements” for most of the killings and the army for the shelling in which about 20 people died.

As the council was discussing the massacre, which took place in the Houla area of central Syria, 13 workers at a state fertilizer factory were killed after their bus was stopped by armed men near an army checkpoint outside the rebel-held town of Qusair, near Syria’s border with Lebanon.

“Regime forces tied their hands behind their backs and shot them,” said Salim Kabbani of the opposition Local Co-ordination Committees. Another 12 were reported killed in shelling there, and 13 during countrywide protests commemorating those who died in Houla.

Human rights commissioner Navi Pillay said Syrian officials, members of the armed forces and allied shabbiha militia could be liable for prosecution for crimes against humanity over involvement in “widespread or systematic attacks against civilian populat- ions that have been perpetrated with impunity . . . those who order, assist or fail to stop attacks on civilians are individually criminally liable for their actions”.

She urged the international community to support the six-point plan put forward by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

“Otherwise, the situation in Syria might descend into a full-fledged conflict and the future of the country, as well as the region . . . could be in grave danger,” she said. Her comments were bolstered by the UN Committee against Torture which said that, under orders from the regime, Syrian forces and militia have tortured and mutilated civilians, including children, since the revolt began 14 months ago. The committee also expressed concern over “torture, executions and abductions by armed opposition”.

Syria’s ambassador Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui accused 600-800 “terrorists” of carrying out the massacre to “ignite sectarian strife” and said an investigation was being conducted to find the instigators and perpetrators of the killings.

The shabbiha, widely blamed for atrocities, is a shadowy group of armed men who often accompany regular army units mounting operations against opposition fighters and protesters, and mop up once troops pull back.

The original shabbiha, known as “ghosts”, were bodyguards for wealthy businessmen, but the term came to embrace criminal elements who smuggled drugs, guns and goods through Syrian ports and across the border into Lebanon.

Most shabbiha, who have a reputation for viciousness and cruelty, are drawn from poor heterodox Shia Alawite communities living in urban areas. Shabbiha were mobilised between 1979 and 1982 by President Bashar al-Assad’s father to take part in the campaign against Muslim Brotherhood rebels but were disbanded in 2000 after the younger Assad came to power.

Shabbiha units were reconstituted after unrest erupted last year. They believe they are fighting for their very existence as Alawites have come under attack from Sunni militants who link the regime – the Assad family is Alawite – with the community as a whole.

Meanwhile, during a visit to Lebanon, Mr Annan said he noted the impatience of the international community over continuing violence in Syria but argued that work towards a democratic transition should continue. He warned of instability in Lebanon should Syria sink into civil war.