Video: Powers veto UN call for Assad's removal
Published 05/02/2012 | 05:00
Russia and China prop up murderous dictator
Russia and China last night vetoed a UN resolution calling on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step down, provoking a furious reaction from the West and risking an angry backlash from the Arab world.
It was the two countries' second use of their Security Council vetoes to shield the leader from UN condemnation since the uprising against his rule began last year, and came despite worldwide outrage at the slaughter of up to 330 people in Homs during the previous night.
The five-hour shelling of the rebellious city's civilian population, in which 99 women and children were among those killed, was the worst single act of violence in the 11 month-long uprising.
Russia said it could not support a resolution backing an Arab League plan for a swift transition of power and elections. It was understood to have demanded a last-minute change dropping a call, already agreed by Syria in November, for tanks and artillery to be withdrawn from the streets.
That was rejected outright by Western governments after residents of Homs reported an extraordinary bombardment overnight by mortars and heavy artillery, shattering houses and sending the injured and dying flooding to hospitals and makeshift clinics. At least 200 were killed, with some activists giving figures as high as 330.
"This is a new massacre to add to the other Assad regime massacres," a lawyer and activist in the city who gave his name as Abu Jihad told The Sunday Telegraph. "We ask for international intervention to stop this."
William Hague, the UK's foreign secretary, said Russia and China had "let the Syrian people down" and their veto would encourage more killing.
"Russia and China faced a simple choice today: would they support the people of Syria and the Arab League or not?" he said. "They decided not to, and instead sided with the Syrian regime and its brutal suppression of the Syrian people in support of their own national interests."
Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, who had earlier discussed Moscow's concerns directly with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said: "I thought that there might be some ways to bridge, even at this last moment, a few of the concerns that the Russians had.
"I offered to work in a constructive manner to do so. That has not been possible."
But Russia insisted that the resolution was "unbalanced" and amounted to an attempt by the West to force regime change in Syria.
China's representative to the UN, Li Baodong, said: "To push through a vote when parties are still seriously divided over the issue will not help maintain the unity and authority of the Security Council, or help resolve the issue."
Earlier, world leaders had united to condemn the attack on Homs. "Yesterday the Syrian government murdered hundreds of Syrian citizens, including women and children, in Homs," President Barack Obama said in a written statement.
"Assad must halt his campaign of killing and crimes against his own people now. He must step aside and allow a democratic transition to proceed immediately."
Mr Hague said: "The Syrian regime's actions display President Assad's cold-blooded cynicism in the face of mounting international pressure for the UN security council to do its utmost to end the bloodshed.
"The escalating violence underlines the critical importance of the security council adding its weight to the Arab League's efforts to end the crisis in Syria."
The assault began without warning at 10pm on Friday, activists in the city and in London said, and lasted five hours. Rami Abdulrahman, of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said his contacts had counted 237 dead, including 99 women and children.
Activists speaking by phone from inside the figure said the number was higher, but even the lower figure would make the assault the bloodiest single atrocity of the uprising.
The government claimed film footage showing the victims was a set-up using the bodies of people kidnapped and killed by "armed gangs", and said it was a deliberate attempt to build up hostility towards the regime in advance of the UN resolution.
Within hours of the bombardment starting, pictures flooded YouTube and television stations of bodies piling up in chaotic aid stations, disfigured by explosions. Lines of lifeless young men splattered with blood packed the rooms of a mosque in one particularly gruelling clip, though it could not be confirmed they were victims of the attack.
Another clip showed a teenage boy, his face covered by his jacket.
"We were sitting inside our house when we started hearing the shelling. We felt shells were falling on our heads," a resident called Walid said. "The morning has come and we have discovered more bodies, bodies are on the streets. Some are still under the rubble."
Mr Abdulrahman said the attack was unaccountable, because there had been less conflict than usual in the city during the day, usually a day of intense protest after Friday prayers.
But he said the regime's attention had turned to Homs after a troop of soldiers had been ambushed with several deaths by Free Syrian Army fighters in Deraa, in Syria's far south.
"Two hours later they started the first bombing in Homs," he said.
Of those who died, most were from Khalidiya, a suburb that has been under effective rebel control. "Abu Jihad", who lives in Khalidiya, spoke as mass funerals began in the street behind him, divided into batches of 25 and 50, he said, to minimise the chance of troops attacking the funeral processions.
A crowd 100,000 strong had gathered in the central square of Khalidiya, renamed Hurreya or Freedom Square, and were chanting against the regime, he said.
"They fired mortars at us, just to punish us," he said. "The attack targeted civilian areas and civilian people, because Khalidiya is a symbol of the revolution in Homs."
Homs has suffered by far the most casualties of any province of the uprising. The Free Syrian Army has been patrolling some streets openly, and fighting cat-and-mouse battles with the regular army.
Mohammed Saleh, who lives outside the city but has relatives inside, said that following the bombardment there were skirmishes a mile away on the road to Hama, with soldiers firing wildly in all directions and causing more civilian casualties. The fighting centred on a base of the Mukhabarat, or General Intelligence Department.
At the United Nations, Britain, the US and France were determined to go ahead with the security council vote, believing that after constant negotiations and amendments the Russians were merely playing for time.
They rejected amendments tabled by Russia putting equal blame on the "armed elements" of the opposition for the violence that it said would enable it to support the resolution.
Mr Lavrov said Russia could not support any resolution that "took sides" in a civil war, but said his amendments were conducive to an agreement.
The draft had already been watered down from the original, which repeated an Arab League timetable for Mr Assad to cede powers to his deputy, oversee the formation of a unity government with the opposition, and hold elections within six months.
The subsequent version said Syria should move "in accordance with" the Arab League plan, but Russia wanted this further altered to merely "take into account" the plan.
Anger over events in Syria spilled over into European and Arab capitals, with several Syrian embassies being stormed, including those in London and Berlin. The embassy in Kuwait had its windows smashed, while a mob entered the ground floor of the embassy in Cairo and set fire to it.