Tuesday, 29 May 2012 22:24
DAMASCUS: Western governments ordered out top Syrian diplomats on Tuesday in protest at the killing of at least 108 people in a central town last week as international envoy Kofi Annan met President Bashar al-Assad in a bid to rescue his battered peace plan.
The apparently coordinated moves by the European Union, the United States and other governments including Australia and Canada overshadowed the Syrian government's efforts to talk up the progress made in the crunch meeting between the UN-Arab League envoy and Assad.
But the expulsions did not go far enough for the Syrian opposition which demanded that the UN Security Council approve Libya-style military intervention against Assad's government as a human rights watchdog tallied another 19 people killed in a fresh day of violence.
On only his second visit to Damascus since his appointment as international envoy three months ago, Annan told Assad of the world's "grave concern" about the persistent bloodshed in Syria more than five weeks after a ceasefire was supposed to take effect as part of a hard-won peace blueprint.
The former UN chief conveyed "the grave concern of the international community about the violence in Syria, including in particular the recent events in Houla," his office said.
"He conveyed in frank terms his view to President Assad that the six-point plan cannot succeed without bold steps to stop the violence and release detainees, and stressed the importance of full implementation of the plan."
Annan flew into Damascus on Monday hours after the UN Security Council passed a statement condemning heavy shelling of residential areas by government forces during the killings in Houla on Friday and Saturday.
The Syrian authorities have repeatedly insisted that the lion's share of the blame for the high death toll lies with armed rebels, a position Assad restated yet again in his talks with Annan on Tuesday.
"The success of the Annan plan depends on the end of terrorist acts and those who support them and the smuggling of weapons," Assad was quoted as saying.
The Syrian foreign ministry gave an upbeat assessment of the talks.
"Positive & constructive meeting between Annan & President Assad this morning. Details discussed to push forward the plan & end violence," spokesman Jihad Makdissi said on Twitter.
But as the two men met, a host of Western governments moved to expel Syria's few remaining senior diplomats in protest at the "massacre" in Houla in which the United Nations said nearly half of the dead were children, many gruesomely blown to bits or shot dead at point blank range.
"We hold the Syrian government responsible for this slaughter of innocent lives," US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, informing charge d'affaires Zuheir Jabbour that he had 72 hours to leave the country.
"We encourage all countries to condemn the actions of the Assad regime through similar action," Nuland said in a statement.
The US action was mirrored by European and other Western governments, including some of the few that had kept an ambassador in Damascus.
Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr ordered out Syrian charge d'affaires Jawdat Ali saying: "This is the most effective way we've got of sending a message of revulsion to the Syrian government."
French President Francois Hollande said Paris would also host a new meeting in July of the "Friends of Syria" group formed by Syria's Arab and Western critics.
But Syrian ally Russia, which has twice used its veto powers at the UN Security Council to block Arab- and Western-led efforts to condemn Assad's government, voiced renewed scepticism as to Damascus's responsibility for the Houla deaths.
"At this stage, there should be an objective and impartial investigation conducted under the auspices of the UN monitoring mission in Syria," the foreign ministry said after telephone talks between Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Annan.
The opposition Syrian National Council welcomed the expulsion of Syrian diplomats but called on Western governments to go further and push for a UN Security Council resolution authorising the use of force.
The world body should "adopt a resolution under Chapter VII (of the UN Charter) allowing the use of necessary force in order to put a stop to the genocide and the murders committed by the regime's militias," the SNC said.
At least 19 people were killed as violence raged on on Tuesday despite Annan's mission to Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
More than 13,000 people have been killed, most of them civilians, since the uprising against Assad's regime erupted in March last year, according to the Britain-based watchdog.
Annan's peace blueprint was supposed to begin with a ceasefire from April 12 but it has been broken daily despite the deployment of more than 280 UN military observers.
Copyright AFP (Agence France-Presse), 2012