Annan, a former U.N. secretary general, told reporters after his talks with Assad in the Syrian capital, Damascus: “The Syrian people do not want the future to be one of bloodshed and division. Yet the killings continue and the abuses are still with us today.” He said he appealed to Assad to act immediately to halt violence by his forces and government-backed militias, and he urged armed rebels to stop attacks as well.
According to the United Nations, nearly half of the civilians killed in Houla were children under age 10. The dead also included 34 women, and most of the victims apparently were shot at close range, the U.N. human rights office said.
The U.S. government is giving Syria’s charge d’affaires, the country’s top diplomat currently in Washington, 72 hours to leave the United States, administration officials said. Earlier, Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Australia announced that they were expelling Syrian ambassadors or other top envoys to protest the killings. Canada announced that all Syrian diplomats were being ejected from the country. Bulgaria and Switzerland were among other countries reported to be following suit.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius described Assad in a newspaper interview as “the murderer of his people” and said he “must relinquish power.” Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr vowed to pursue “a unified international response to hold those responsible to account.”
Annan went to Damascus in a bid to salvage a six-point peace plan endorsed last month by a U.N. Security Council resolution but now clearly in jeopardy from the rising violence. The Local Coordination Committees, an opposition group, said 55 people were killed Tuesday.
“I appealed to him for bold steps now — not tomorrow, now — to create momentum for the implementation of the plan,” Annan said at a news conference.
He also urged “the armed opposition to cease acts of violence.” But he made it clear he held the government — “as the stronger partner in this conflict” — primarily responsible for the plan’s failure to halt the bloodshed.
“This means that the government, and all government-backed militias, could stop all military operations and show maximum restraint,” he said. “I appealed to the president ... to be bold for the Syrian people.”
He also said he warned Assad: “the international community will soon be reviewing the situation.”
The Houla massacre was one of the worst single incidents of the 14-month old uprising against Assad’s rule and has heightened concerns that Syria is sliding into an unstoppable conflict that could spread beyond its borders. More than 10,000 people are believed to have died in the uprising.