Peace envoy Kofi Annan condemned the killing of at least 108 people in the Syrian town of Houla as "an appalling crime" on Monday and urged President Bashar Assad to prove he wants a peaceful resolution to the crisis racking his country.
Assad's forces killed at least 41 people in an artillery assault on the city of Hama, activists said, shortly after the UN Security Council condemned the massacre in nearby Houla which took place on Friday.
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With international criticism growing of Assad's methods in trying to crush a 14-month-old uprising, now accompanied by a lightly armed insurgency, UN Arab League envoy Annan arrived in Damascus for talks on his faltering peace plan.
He explicitly urged the Syrian government to "take bold steps to signal that it is serious in its intention to resolve this crisis peacefully" before adding: "This message of peace is not only for the government, but for everyone with a gun."
Russia and China, which had previously vetoed resolutions condemning Assad, both approved a non-binding text in New York that criticized the use of artillery and tank shells on homes in Houla, but declined to blame the government alone. The rebels do not have artillery and tanks.
Dozens of children killed. Houla massacre (Photo: AP)
"China feels deeply shocked by the large number of civilian casualties in Houla, and condemns in the strongest terms the cruel killings of ordinary citizens, especially women and children," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said.
UN monitors say at least 108 people were killed, among them dozens of children. Many of the victims were also hacked to death or shot at close range, as shown in graphic images distributed by activists.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council that these killings could have been the work of rebels or government forces who moved in after the bombardment.
"We are dealing with a situation in which both sides evidently had a hand in the deaths of innocent people," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a news conference with visiting British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
Both Russia and China have resisted joining Western and Arab League sanctions against Assad. Both reaffirmed on Monday that Annan's plan, accepted by both sides in the conflict, was the only way forward.
'Tsunami of lies'
The plan calls for heavy weapons to be pulled out of towns and cities, followed by an end to fighting, and dialogue.
But the renewed assault on Hama, a center of resistance already devastated by Assad's artillery this year, was a reminder that the agreement, policed by just 300 monitors, has done little to stem the violence. "The six-point plan has to be implemented comprehensively, and this is not happening," Annan said.
Russia suggested that the violence in Houla, in particular, had been intended to sabotage the visit by Annan, who was to meet Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem on Monday and Assad on Tuesday.
Syrian UN Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari reiterated his government's denial, saying the massacre was the work of "armed terrorist groups" - the Syrian government's term for the rebels.
He dismissed a "tsunami of lies" from the British, French and German envoys, who blamed the government for the massacre, among the worst carnage in an uprising that has cost more than 10,000 lives.
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