Evidence of new massacre surfaces
BEIRUT – Evidence of a new massacre – the third in a week – surfaced Friday in Syria as a U.N. human rights panel called for an “international, transparent, independent and prompt investigation” into mass killings last week in the township of Houla that left more than 100 people dead, mostly women and children slaughtered in their homes.
Both sides in the conflict reported Friday that the bodies of a dozen workers at a government-run fertilizer factory had been found dumped in a field near the central town of Qusair, all apparently executed by gunshots.
The slayings fit a disturbing pattern of motorists and bus passengers being yanked from their vehicles at checkpoints and targeted for assassination, apparently because of their sect or perceived allegiance, or lack of allegiance, to the government of President Bashar Assad.
Government and rebel checkpoints now mark many roads in Syria, especially in conflict zones such as the central province of Homs, where the latest reported mass killing occurred.
Some checkpoints have become killing zones or kidnapping sites, according to both sides in the conflict.
The slayings of the factory workers again raised fears that Syria is plunging into a cycle of tit-for-tat sectarian massacres and a possible civil war, concerns voiced this week by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, among others.
The killers in Syria’s escalating series of massacres typically remain anonymous as each side in the conflict blames the other – a scenario that unfolded again after this latest incident.
An opposition group said the bus carrying the workers was stopped at a military checkpoint, the men were ordered off and executed on the spot. A pro-government group said the men were killed because they worked in a state-run factory.
Lurid video posted online purported to show the victims’ battered and apparently defaced bodies.
Alerted to the killings, a U.N. monitoring team was dispatched to the area and confirmed that both the opposition and pro-government groups said at least 12 people were killed in the area. Both sides contested the circumstances surrounding the killings, the U.N. said.
The incident would be the third massacre reported from Syria in the last week. Thirteen men were slain execution-style near the eastern city of Deir Elzour this week, as well as the house-to-house killings last week of 108 people in Houla, in Homs province.
The Houla massacre galvanized international public opinion against the Syrian government, but Syrian authorities say anti-government “armed groups” carried out the killings, targeting loyalist families, including the relatives of a member of parliament. Washington’s U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, called the Syrian government account “a blatant lie.”
U.N. officials have said the evidence in the Houla killings points toward shadowy pro-government militiamen known as shabiha, after the Arab word for “ghosts.” The dead in Houla included at least 49 children under the age of 10, the U.N. said.
That ambiguity about who was behind the Houla slayings prompted the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council on Friday to call for an independent international inquiry into the atrocity. Meanwhile, the U.N. rights chief, Navi Pillay, said the evidence in the Houla massacre suggests that Syrian officials could be brought before an international court for crimes against humanity.
But objections from Russia, Syria’s most powerful international ally and a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council, appear to make any such action against Syrian officials unlikely. On Friday, Russia voted against the rights panel’s call for an international investigation of the Houla slayings. Russian diplomats suggested the move was biased against the Syrian government.
Russia has already twice blocked U.N. Security Council resolutions that would have condemned the Syrian crackdown on dissent since large-scale protests erupted more than 14 months ago.
On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was visiting Germany, said he still held out hope for a political solution to the Syrian crisis.
Special U.N. envoy Kofi Annan, who has the backing of Russia and the United States, has crafted a six-point plan for peace in Syria. Among the requirements are that the government withdraw troops and heavy armaments from populated areas.
Annan has called on the Syrian government to undertake “bold steps” to implement the lagging peace plan. Many diplomats consider the plan the best chance to avoid an all-out civil war in Syria.