Western powers expelled Syria's envoys on Tuesday in outrage at a massacre of 108 people, almost half of them children, but a defiant President Bashar Assad, backed by Russia, showed no sign of yielding to their pressure.
The killings in the town of Houla drew a chorus of condemnation from around the world, with the United Nations saying entire families were shot dead in their homes on Friday.
The United States, France, Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy, Spain, Australia, the Netherlands and Bulgaria gave Syria's envoys hours or days to leave their capitals in a coordinated move that underlined Assad's diplomatic isolation.
Some had already expelled ambassadors or downgraded ties and so, like Washington, ordered out less senior charges d'affaires.
US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called the Houla attack "the most unambiguous indictment to date" of Damascus's refusal to implement UN resolutions.
"We hold the Syrian government responsible for this slaughter of innocent lives," she said.
Annan and Assad in Damascus (Photo: Reuters)
Meanwhile, international peace envoy Kofi Annan met Assad in Damascus to try to save a six-week-old peace plan that has failed to stem Syria's bloodshed. Annan warned Assad of the "grave concern of the international community about the violence in Syria", and especially in Houla, his spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said after two hours of talks.
But Assad's government denied having anything to do with the deaths, or even having heavy weapons in the area, despite the contrary evidence found by United Nations monitors.
Assad himself repeated to Annan Syria's line that "terrorist groups" - Syria's term for the rebels - were stepping up killings and kidnappings across the country.
Western countries that have called for Assad to step down are hoping that the Houla killings will tip global opinion, notably that of Syria's main protector Russia, towards more effective action against Damascus.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking Annan by phone on Tuesday, urged Syria's government and its opponents to stop violence and repeated a call for an investigation into the killings in the town of Houla.
Lavrov "expressed deep alarm in connection with the tragedy in Houla and underscored that all Syrian sides should reject violence without delay with the aim of preventing such incidents in the future," the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
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