The killing on May 25 in Syria's Houla region of around 108 people, including a large number of women and children, spurred Kofi Annan, U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria to visit Damascus on Monday. He renewed his call for reconciliation.

Mr. Annan said in Damascus he was appalled by the tragedy that had befallen Houla — a region made up of several villages about 20 km northwest of the restive city of Homs. “In this crisis, I am personally shocked and horrified by the tragic incident in Houla,” he said.

“This is an appalling crime and the Security Council has rightly condemned it,” Mr. Annan observed.

Unanimous decision

In a unanimous decision, the Council on Sunday expressed outrage at the tragedy, which has acquired a sharp emotional edge as among the killed are 49 children. The Council also mandated a U.N. investigation into the carnage.

In a press statement, the Council observed: “The members of the Security Council condemned in the strongest possible terms the killings, confirmed by United Nations observers, of dozens of men, women and children and the wounding of hundreds more in the village of El-Houleh (Houla), near Homs, in attacks that involved a series of government artillery and tank shellings on a residential neighbourhood.”

The Syrian government has denied any role in the bloodbath, but the head of the U.N. monitoring mission in Syria, Major General Robert Mood, pointed to the use of heavy weaponry, to which non-state actors are unlikely to have access. He said that some of the dead had been killed by shelling, while others were shot at close range by people whose identity had not been established.

“The evidence is clear — it is not murky,” Peter Wittig, German representative at the United Nations, told reporters after Sunday's emergency meeting. “There is a clear government footprint in those killings.”

Russia, however, has cautioned against hasty conclusions, pointing to the so called “massacre” of 45 Albanians in the Kosovo village of Racak, which could never be established but became the basis for NATO attacks on former Yugoslavia.

The New York-based rights group, Human Rights Watch, in a statement based on interviews with survivors and activists, said the “Syrian army shelled the area on May 25, and armed men, dressed in military clothes, attacked homes on the outskirts of town and executed entire families”. It added: “All of the witnesses stated the armed men were pro-government, but they did not know whether they were members of the Syrian army or a pro-government militia, locally referred to as shabeeha.”

Analysts point out that Mr. Annan's mission is expected to focus on salvaging his six-point peace plan, which calls for the withdrawal of heavy weapons and troops from population centres, a daily halt in fighting for the delivery of humanitarian aid, and an internal political dialogue between the government and opposition. Mr. Annan exhorted the Syrian government to “ to take bold steps to signal that it is serious in its intention to resolve this crisis peacefully, and for everyone involved to help create the right context for a credible political process”.

As Mr. Annan waded into his difficult Syria mission, the Houla tragedy seemed to have deepened the animosity between the government and the opposition. Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdisi, attributed the killings in Houla to a “terrorist attack,” and regretted that the U.N. had been misled by the opposition's version of the events. From his perch in Turkey, opposition leader Burhan Ghalioun lamented that the “international community suffers from a lack of will when it comes to protecting Syrian civilians”.

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