An emergency council meeting in New York on Sunday accused President Bashar al-Assad’s forces of unleashing havoc in the town last week, calling the bombardment of residential areas “an outrageous use of force” which violated international law.
“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 attacks that involved a series of government artillery and tank shellings on a residential neighbourhood,” the non-binding statement said.
Russia, which has resisted previous West-led condemnations of its Damascus ally, signed up to the declaration, signalling the extent of revulsion over images of infant corpses lined side by side after Friday’s slaughter, one of the worst incidents in the 14-month conflict.
Britain and France had pushed for immediate condemnation but Moscow requested a briefing by General Robert Mood, the head of the unarmed UN observer mission in Syria, which took place behind closed doors at Sunday’s meeting.
Moscow was prepared to chastise its Syrian ally for using heavy weapons but resisted attempts to blame pro-regime forces for point-blank shootings and stabbings which appear to have caused many of the deaths.
“It still remains unclear what happened and what triggered what,” said Russia’s deputy UN ambassador, Alexander Pankin.
“We understand that the village ... was not under the control of the government forces. We understood that there was a lot of demonstration in one of the districts of this village and allegedly firing and shelling started afterwards.”
He said it was unlikely government forces would have killed civilians at point-blank range and suggested there was a third force – terrorists or external agents – seeking to trigger outside intervention.
Syria’s envoy repeated official denials of responsibility and said terrorists were attempting to sow confusion.
Opposition activists said army troops shelled Houla after a protest and members of Assad’s Shabbiha militia slashed, hacked and shot victims at close range during an ensuing clash with rebels.
European envoys, speaking after the council statement, insisted the evidence incriminated pro-regime forces.
Britain’s UN ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, told reporters that the council statement was “important” but not sufficient and that the council would meet again in the coming days to discuss Syria. Germany’s envoy said Berlin wanted the massacre referred to the international criminal court.
The Houla bloodshed has shredded confidence in a six-week-old international peace plan. The UN put the death toll weeks ago at more than 9 000. Hundreds have been killed since.
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said the perpetrators of the Houla massacre must be held to account, and she vowed greater international pressure would hound Assad from power.
Speaking before the UN council statement, Clinton accused Assad’s government of ruling by “murder and fear”, adding that the regime must “come to an end”.
The comments came amid reports that US President Barack Obama is preparing to push Russia to back the departure of Assad under a scheme modelled on the transition of power in Yemen.
According to an article in the New York Times, Obama hopes to enlist President Vladimir Putin’s support over a transition of power in Syria during a meeting next month, the first between the pair since Putin’s return to the Kremlin.
Under the reported plan, the international community would broker a settlement in which Assad would leave, but remnants of the political structure would remain intact.
It is seen as a variant of the scheme under which President Ali Abdullah Saleh handed over power in Yemen following widespread unrest last year.
White House officials have indicated that Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was receptive to the scheme when he met Obama at Camp David on the sidelines of the G8 summit.
But for the plan to have a chance of succeeding it would need greater backing from Moscow, which has been strongly opposed to Assad’s removal.
Russia, as one of Assad’s few remaining allies, has long blocked tough sanctions against the regime proposed by the UN, claiming it could lead to the bloody ouster of Assad.
But the breakdown of the already fragile Syrian peace process amid horrific scenes could push Moscow towards using its influence in the strife-torn country to assist a transition of power. – © Guardian News and Media 2012