Saturday 25 November 2017

Children's bodies filmed in fresh Syrian violence

Ruth Sherlock and Colin Freeman in Beirut

Grisly footage from morgue shows failure of the UN's peace plan

Calls for Western military action against Syria intensified last night after grisly footage of the bodies of children killed in fresh violence laid bare the failure of the United Nations-brokered peace plan.

In one of the bloodiest incidents to date in the 15-month long uprising, 92 people were killed after a 12-hour regime assault on Houla, in the central province of Homs.

Anti-government activists claimed that troops had first shelled several villages and then sent in gangs of pro-regime thugs to "massacre" local families in their houses.

Amateur videos released on YouTube showed footage of the mangled bodies of 14 child victims lying in rows in a makeshift morgue set up at a local mosque.

Unarmed UN monitors, who had reportedly been prevented from visiting the area on Friday because of the fighting, were reduced to documenting the attack's horrific aftermath when they finally reached the scene yesterday afternoon.

Last night, Major General Robert Mood, the UN mission chief in Syria, said that of the 92 bodies his staff had counted in Houla, at least 32 were "under the age of 10". He described it as a "brutal tragedy".

The bloodshed, which began on Friday and was reported to have continued into the small hours of yesterday morning, was amongst the worst single incidents since the popular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began.

It was also a severe blow to the credibility of the UN-backed peace plan that was supposed to introduce a ceasefire in early April. Critics said it was clear that the plan, backed by 250 UN monitors on the ground, was already in tatters.

Last night William Hague, Britain's foreign secretary, called for an urgent session of the UN Security Council to discuss the killings, placing the blame squarely on the Syrian government.

"There are credible and horrific reports that a large number of civilians have been massacred at the hands of Syrian forces in Houla, including children," he said.

"The Assad regime must ensure full and immediate access to Houla and other conflict areas in Syria for the UN monitoring team, and cease all military operations."

However, the main Syrian rebel coalition, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), said it was time for the international community to overcome its reluctance to get directly involved in the conflict, and to carry out strikes on regime forces.

The Friends of Syria group, which includes the US, France, Britain, Germany and Saudi Arabia, has previously ruled out such action because of the risk of becoming embroiled in what many fear is already a low-level civil war.

But General Mustafa Ahmed al-Sheikh, head of the Turkey-based FSA military council, said regime opponents had lost all faith in the Security Council, on which Damascus has Russia as a powerful backer.

"We are calling urgently on the Friends of Syria to create a military alliance, outside of the UN Security Council, to carry out targeted strikes against Assad's gangs and the symbols of his regime," Mr Sheikh said.

Houla, which is a loose collection of villages with a population of about 40,000, lies on a plain around 25 miles north-west of the city of Homs, itself the subject of a brutal siege by Mr Assad's forces in February.

The settlement is home mainly to members of Syria's Sunni Islam majority, but borders areas dominated by President Assad's minority Alawite sect.

While eyewitness reports of the violence were confused and often contradictory, it followed an anti-government demonstration in Houla after Friday's midday prayers.

Some claimed that rebel gunmen had earlier courted trouble by opening fire on checkpoints manned by government troops.

Whatever the spark, the scale of the ensuing attack appears to have been brutal even by the standards of the Assad regime. Mousab Azzawi, of the Syrian Network of Human Rights, said: "The operation started about midday, with the use of about 50 or 60 mortar shells. Then they started to use tanks and heavy artillery for two hours.

"After that they deployed about 13 or 14 cars with mounted guns, and raided houses at random."

The Syrian government also broadcast footage of the casualties, blaming them instead on "armed terrorist" groups which it said had also killed several government troops.

© Sunday Telegraph

Sunday Independent

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