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Top human rights body weighs Syrian slaughter

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FB_syria_homs_bodies_620x35021.jpg(CNN) – The top United Nations human rights official highlighted the horrors of Houla in an emergency meeting on Syria on Friday as opposition activists reported pro-regime militias hauling factory workers off a bus and summarily executing them.In a statement read to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Navi Pillay urged the international community to throw its weight behind special envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan and called for unimpeded access for an investigation into the massacre in the city of Houla last week of 108 people, including 49 children.

“Otherwise, the situation in Syria might descend into a full-fledged conflict and the future of the country, as well as the region as a whole, could be in grave danger,” said Pillay, the high commissioner for human rights.

She said the massacre “may amount to crimes against humanity and other international crimes, and may be indicative of a pattern of widespread or systematic attacks against civilian populations that have been perpetrated with impunity.”

“Once again, I urge the Security Council to consider referring the case of Syria to the International Criminal Court,” Pillay said.

A draft from the Human Rights Council deplored the killings, which it said “involved a series of government artillery and tank shelling of a residential neighborhood” and killings by pro-government militia. It condemned the “outrageous use of force” against civilians and called for the Syrian government to immediately halt the violence.

Syria told Pillay’s office that “terrorist armed groups” were responsible for Houla. It said the military”was acting only in self-defense, and that it sought to protect the civilian population.”

“The government of Syria said that it established an inter-ministerial committee to investigate these events. Nevertheless, there is a need for prompt, independent and impartial international investigations into all serious human rights violations in Syria,” she said.

Reports of more carnage filtered out of Syria on Friday, with at least 37 people slain across the country, the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria said.

Other reports of terror emerged this week. In the Homs province village of Bouyda, 12 factory workers were killed Thursday by pro-government gangs known as Shabiha, the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. They were lined up against a wall and shot, the group said.

U.N. observers said 13 people were discovered bound and slain bodies about 30 miles east of Deir Ezzor, in the eastern part of the country, on Tuesday night.

While these reports of violence escalate, defiant protesters took to the streets of Syria on Friday in what is billed as “a merchants’ strike to stop massacring children.” A revolt by Syria’s merchant class — which has been an integral part of President Bashar al-Assad’s support structure — could elevate the uprising.

Houla and the continuing carnage in Syria has spurred international outrage.

Annan, speaking to reporters in Lebanon, said he realized that many had grown impatient with the situation in Syria and are frustrated by the continuing levels of violence. Asked if the much-criticized mission is “a diplomatic cover for more killings,” he defended the importance of his six-point plan.

“We deplore the killings, we condemn the massacre in Houla and the subsequent killings that happened. And this is I think one more reason that one should make greater effort to find a solution. To suggest that an attempt to find a peaceful solution is a reason for further killings — I find it difficult to defend because the implication is that if this proposal was not on the table, if we were not discussing ways of getting people to the table to discuss political solutions, there would be no killing. I disagree with that,” he said.

Asked what has to happen before the peace plan is dead and other options should be pursued, Annan said that’s a decision for the U.N. Security Council, which passed a resolution backing the peace initiative.

“The council and the countries involved will have to keep working together to find a solution. If it is not this proposal on the table, there could be something else. I am not one of those who believes that there is only one way of solving—there could be other ways,” he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin Friday struck back at the claims by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Moscow is “propping up the regime” of Bashar al-Assad.

“We have good and long relations with Syria, but we do not support either of the sides,” he said, speaking to reporters after a meeting in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Russia has blocked tough action against the regime in the U.N. Security Council.

Putin said he agreed with Merkel that everything must be done to avoid a civil war in Syria. “Today we see developing elements of civil war and it’s very dangerous,” he said.

The Russian president said it’s wrong to conclude the Annan plan has failed and emphasized the importance of a political solution.

“We will maintain contact with President Assad and the leadership of Syria and with regional countries, Arab countries … in order to find a political solution,” he said.

A Russian-flagged ship docked this week in the Syrian port of Tartus and some human rights groups have charged that it was carrying weapons to be used in the conflict in Syria. The U.S. State Department said Thursday that it was looking into the matter but could not confirm that the ship was carrying arms.

“We don’t supply weapons that can be used in civil conflicts,” Putin said.

Annan said he and Lebanese authorities discussed cross-border arms smuggling. There are reports that the Free Syrian Army rebels are getting some weaponry from Lebanon.

“Lebanese authorities have made it quite clear to me the efforts they are making to prevent their territory being used for trans-shipment of arms. We should also dissuade those who would want to smuggle arms into the territory (so that they would) stop,” he said.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who met on Friday in Istanbul with members of Syrian opposition groups, Turkish officials, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, stressed the importance of unifying what has been a fractious opposition movement.

“The secretary-general and I share a deep concern that Syria is on the brink of a vicious civil war. We agreed that President Assad must fulfill his commitment to implementing the Annan plan if this scenario is to be averted,” he said.

The crisis in Syria began when a tough government crackdown launched against protesters last year spiraled out of control and spawned a national anti-government uprising. It is estimated that between 9,000 and more than 14,000 Syrians have died in the nearly 15-month-long crisis.

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