• Bodies in Houla. The UN counted 32 children under the age of 10 and over 60 adults (Photo: FreedomHouse2)

No change in EU policy after Syria 'massacre'

29.05.12 @ 09:29

  1. By Andrew Rettman
  2. Andrew email

BRUSSELS - A "massacre" in the village of Houla in Syria on Friday (25 May) has not altered EU policy on the conflict.

The UN Security Council in a press statement on Sunday said "dozens of men, women and children" are dead and "hundreds" more wounded.

It noted the casualties were partly caused by "attacks that involved a series of government artillery and tank shellings on a residential neighbourhood." It also said there was "killing of civilians by shooting at close range and by severe physical abuse." But it did not say who did the point-blank killing.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in a press conference with his British counterpart, William Hague, in Moscow on Monday indicated that opposition groups perpetrated some of the atrocities to make Syrian President Bashar Assad look bad.

"Both sides are responsible for the deaths of innocent civilians," he said.

For his part, Hague noted: "We are not arguing that all violence in Syria is the responsibility of the Assad regime."

Meanwhile, French President Francois Hollande - in his first intervention on major foreign policy - published a joint statement with British leader David Cameron on Tuesday morning.

The two men blamed the "massacre" squarely on Assad's "senseless murderous brutality" and said they would meet the Syrian opposition in Paris on an unspecified date.

They repeated the EU's pre-Houla line that outside intervention should stop at diplomatic pressure and that the best solution is UN special envoy Kofi Annan's blueprint for a ceasefire followed by a "Syrian-led" political process.

Unlike more hawkish EU statements in previous months, they did not call on Assad to step down or for the creation of humanitarian corridors guarded by international troops.

Speaking for the EU in her statement on Sunday, foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton hedged her bets on who did what at Houla.

She said she is "appalled" by "reports" that it was government forces. She also endorsed the Annan plan, but added that the "international community" should keep "urging Assad to step aside."

The US has said it favours a Yemen-type resolution, in which Assad goes in return for immunity. But its top military commander, general Jack Dempsey, told the CBS news channel that he still favours "diplomatic pressure."

The information war on Syria also emerged at a minor press event in the EU capital on Saturday.

A pro-Assad group staged a press conference under the eyes of the Belgian police in which a Christian friar from the monastery of Mar Yakub in Syria blamed all violence in the country on "fanatical Muslims financed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar." Anti-Assad NGOs heckled the speakers and said they were paid for or manipulated by the Syrian embassy in Brussels.

Syrian soldiers have reportedly defected in large numbers to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in recent weeks.

But a senior FSA commander on Tuesday told Israel's Haaretz newspaper that Assad still has 70,000 loyalists under his command and a cache of chemical weapons under the control of Abdel-Fatah Qudsiyeh, his chief of secret police.

Apart from Chinese and Russian support at the UN-level, his regime is also backed by Iran and Shia Muslim factions in neighbouring Iraq and Lebanon.