Monday 20 January 2020

Syria: Sickening images of children massacred in Homs

Bodies of children whom activists said were killed by the Syrian army, in Karm al-Zeitoun near Homs
Bodies of children whom activists said were killed by the Syrian army, in Karm al-Zeitoun near Homs
Bodies of children whom activists said were killed by the Syrian army, in Karm al-Zeitoun near Homs
Bodies of children whom activists said were killed by the Syrian army, in Karm al-Zeitoun near Homs reporters

HEARTBREAKING images emerged from Syria today of the bodies of children lined up after what the opposition claim was a massacre of 47 women and children by Assad’s forces.

The opposition urged the UN Security Council to hold an emergency meeting to discuss the killings.

Hadi Abdallah, a Syrian activist in the besieged central city of Homs, said the bodies of 26 children and 21 women, some with their throats slit and others bearing stab wounds, were found in the Karm el-Zaytoun and Al-Adawiyeh neighbourhoods.

"Some of the children had been hit with blunt objects on their head, one little girl was mutilated and some women were raped before being killed," he said.

The main opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC), called for an emergency UN Security Council meeting to discuss the "massacre", which it said took place on Sunday.

"The Syrian National Council is making the necessary contacts with all organisations and countries that are friends with the Syrian people for the UN Security Council to hold an emergency meeting," the SNC said in a statement.

And in a clear reference to Russia and China, the SNC said that allies of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad shared responsibility for the "crimes" committed by his regime.

State television blamed "armed terrorist gangs" for the killings, saying they had kidnapped residents of Homs, killed them and then made video footage of the bodies in an attempt to discredit Syrian forces.

The Syrian government rebuffed a peacemaking mission by Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general on Sunday, mounting a major offensive against rebel strongholds that left more than 130 people dead over the weekend.

Mr Annan, the joint UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria, ended two days of talks with President Bashar al-Assad insisting that he was still “optimistic” despite failing to make any headway in his diplomatic efforts to end the crisis.

In a sign that Mr Assad remains determined to crush the yearlong uprising against his rule, pro-regime forces swept through the northwest province of Idlib, making significant gains against outgunned rebel units.

By Sunday morning, the city of Idlib, the provincial capital, appeared to have fallen to the Syrian army following an intense artillery bombardment.

As tank shells struck the city from all directions, panicked civilians clutching blankets attempted to flee, although many remained trapped after the army sealed off exit points.

Human Rights groups said that 54 civilians, mostly in and around Idlib, were killed over the weekend. Rebel fighters, many of them army defectors, held their positions for several hours, sheltering behind walls to return fire against the advancing tanks with automatic weapons. But as their casualties began to mount, most fighters withdrew, leaving only pockets of resistance, activists in Idlib said.

“These shocking images are more evidence of the brutal war crimes and crimes against humanity taking place every day in Syria," said Colm O'Gorman of Amnesty International Ireland.

"No matter how long it takes the people who committed this atrocity need to be brought to justice.

“Amnesty is calling again on the UN Security Council to refer what is happening in Syria to the International Criminal Court so that those who carry out war crimes, and those who give the orders, are held responsible."

The civilians were pursued by regime forces, with a major tank assault being reported on the nearby town of Jisr al-Shughour and surrounding villages. Both sides in the conflict suffered significant casualties, with 44 rebels and 24 soldiers being killed in clashes both in Idlib and the city of Homs, scene of the uprising’s bloodiest pro-regime offensive last month.

Mr Annan’s mission was never going to achieve instantaneous results, but the scale of the violence that accompanied his first visit to Damascus -- the most high-profile by any foreign official -- will discourage even his most ardent supporters.

Buoyed by a string of battlefield victories, in particular the subjugation of the Baba Amr district of Homs, Mr Assad showed little inclination either to rein in his forces or to begin negotiations with the opposition.

While saying he would support “any honest effort” at international mediation, the Syrian president insisted that a political solution was impossible as long as “terrorist groups” -- his term for the rebels -- threatened the country.

Mr Annan, one of the world’s most experienced conflict negotiators, said he would not be deterred despite his failure to make any headway.

“It’s going to be tough,” he said. “It’s going to be difficult; but we have to have hope. The situation is so bad and so dangerous that all of us cannot afford to fail.”

Complicating his efforts, the former secretary general appears to enjoy little confidence from either side in the conflict with the main opposition group signalling its outrage at his calls for all parties to end violence and begin negotiations.

“Negotiations can never take place between the victim and torturer,” the Syrian National Council said in a statement. “Assad and his entourage must step down as a condition before starting any serious negotiations.”

But in a significant policy shift, Arab League ministers distanced themselves from previous calls for regime change following a meeting in Cairo with Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister. In an effort to win Moscow’s backing for a draft United Nations Security Council resolution, the League backed a Russian proposal that rejected foreign intervention and called on all sides to end the violence.

But in a sign of how far Russia’s stock in the Middle East has fallen because of its support for the Assad regime, Mr Lavrov faced a withering lecture from his Saudi counterpart Prince Saud al-Faisal.

“We must stop issuing hollow resolutions and taking spineless positions,” Prince Saud said. “The position of those countries which thwarted UN Security Council resolutions and voted against the resolution of the General Assembly gave the Syrian regime a licence to extend its brutal practices against the Syrian people.”

Russia, along with China, has twice vetoed Security Council resolutions condemning the Assad regime. William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, has convened a meeting of the Council on Monday when efforts to win Russian backing for a watered-down resolution calling for both sides to end violence and grant access for humanitarian aid.

Russia has demanded revisions to the draft, but there are signs that its support for Mr Assad, one of Moscow’s most important arms clients, is wavering. Russia’s respected Kommersant newspaper quoted a senior Kremlin source as saying that the Syrian leader has only “a ten per cent chance” of surviving in power.

The Syrian army has been unable to inflict a decisive blow against the rebels. Its recent victories mask the fact that it is only capturing towns that it retook in offensives last year, when parts of Homs, Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour were supposedly pacified, only to once again fall under rebel control.

At the same time, the pace of defections, though still slow, is increasing, with a deputy minister and two generals all deserting Mr Assad in the last week alone.

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