DAMASCUS // At least 39 people were killed in Syria yesterday as UN observers confirmed they had found the bodies of 13 more victims of summary execution.
The dead had their hands tied behind their backs and had been shot in the head at close range in the eastern desert province of Deir Ezzor.
Less than 24 hours earlier the joint UN-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan, in Damascus for meetings with the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad and opposition groups, urged a cessation of violence and immediate steps from the government to halt a slide into civil war.
Instead of progress towards implementing a ceasefire, however, UN observers on Tuesday night found new victims of execution-style killings, 50 kilometres to the east of Deir Ezzor city.
General Robert Mood, the head of the UN monitors in Syria, said he was "deeply disturbed by this inexcusable act" and, once more, called for restraint "to end the cycle of violence".
UN monitors are already investigating Friday's massacre in Houla, near the city of Homs, in which 108 people - many women and young children - were killed by artillery fire and close-range shootings.
The Houla killings were discussed in a closed session of the UN Security Council yesterday, with Jean-Marie Guehenno, Mr Annan's deputy, briefing the group.
International pressure on Syria has grown after UN officials said government forces were responsible for 20 of the deaths in Houla caused by artillery fire, and that a pro-government militia, known as shabbiheh, was probably to blame for the executions.
Syrian officials have repeatedly denied any complicity of government forces in the assault, accusing "armed terrorist groups" of the murders.
In response to Houla, Syrian ambassadors have been expelled from a dozen countries, including Japan, Switzerland, the US and France.
Yesterday Syrian state-run media reacted angrily to the expulsions and Damascus announced it was expelling the Dutch charge d'affaires, one of the few western diplomats who had not already been formally withdrawn from the country.
Most western and Arab embassies in Damascus have already been shut.
Russia, however, signalled that its support for Mr Al Assad would not change, despite speculation that Moscow would shift its stance after Houla.
"It would make sense to expect a continuation of the Russian Federation's consistent and well-argued line," the Russian president Vladimir Putin's spokesman said yesterday, ahead of Mr Putin's visits to Germany and France. Russia's deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, ruled out any move at the Security Council to discuss imposing sanctions on Syria, or an arms embargo. Moscow is Syria's biggest supplier of weapons.
"We believe consideration in the Security Council of any new measures to influence the situation now would be premature," he said.
China made clear it would not countenance any foreign military action in Syria, after Francois Hollande, the French president, said it was a possibility, if approved by the Security Council.
"China opposes military intervention and does not support forced regime change," said the foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin yesterday
The US and other major powers, including Nato, have all said military action was not being considered, with hopes that Mr Annan's efforts to mediate a peaceful settlement would bear fruit.
Any prospect of that happening remained elusive yesterday however. Human-rights monitors and activists groups said troops opened fire on peaceful protesters in Damascus and Aleppo, while rebel factions and government soldiers fought in Homs, Hama and Idlib provinces. At least 39 people, including at least 14 soldiers, were killed.
On Tuesday - with Mr Annan in Damascus calling for peace - 98 people were killed, including 61 civilians, according to activists.
The discovery of bodies in Deir Ezzor, Syria's oil-producing desert region and tribal heartland, comes amid reports by local residents and community leaders of a crackdown by security forces, and an increasingly militant response from the opposition.
Up to a dozen regime supporters, including pro-government tribal figures and people associated with the shabbiheh militia, have been assassinated there in recent weeks by rebels.
Influential tribal members have long warned that the province is sliding towards open rebellion, since last summer's efforts to strike a deal with security forces that would have allowed for peaceful protests collapsed. Instead tank units were sent it to crush government opponents.
Syrian state run media yesterday reported an oil pipeline in Deir Ezzor was blown up by "terrorists", the second time it has been targeted by rebels.