x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Syria army shelling kills 26 civilians as massacre outcry grows

The Russian foreign minister stressed that his country will continue to block any UN use of force against its ally.

DAMASCUS // The Syrian army killed at least 26 civilians on Saturday, a watchdog said, as a global outcry mounted over yet another massacre in the country, but with Russia stressing that it will block any UN use of force against its ally.

Amid repeated hints in recent weeks about possible military intervention by foreign powers, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of veto-wielding power Russia said "we will not sanction the use of force at the United Nations Security Council."

He spoke as worldwide anger grew over the crackdown by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime on a revolt in which more than 13,500 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since March 2011.

Nine women and three children were among 17 people killed in a pre-dawn bombardment of a residential neighbourhood in the southern city of Daraa, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Dozens more were wounded, some of them seriously, in the city which was the birthplace of the uprising against Assad's rule, the British-based watchdog said.

In nearby Jordan, hundreds of Syrian refugees demonstrated in the border town of Ramtha to protest against the deaths in Daraa, Jordan's official Petra news agency reported.

They marched to the Omari mosque in Ramtha which is home to around 20,000 refugees, most from Daraa province, Petra said.

Meanwhile, UN observers who visited the village of Al-Kubeir, where at least 55 people were killed earlier this week, said they saw blood on the walls and "a strong stench of burnt flesh."

The Al-Kubeir incident prompted Western governments to launch a push for tough new sanctions against Damascus.

Russia, along with China, has already vetoed two Security Council resolutions against Assad.

Meanwhile, in central Syria, government forces on Saturday pounded several rebel neighbourhoods of Homs city with artillery and mortars, killing six civilians, the Observatory said.

It said the army killed at least 26 civilians nationwide, including 17 in the flashpoint southern city of Daraa, while three soldiers died in clashes in northern Syria.

Diplomats in New York said Britain, France and the United States would quickly draw up a Security Council resolution proposing sanctions against Syria following a grim report from the monitors on their visit to Al-Kubeir following Wednesday's assault.

"We will move fast to press for a resolution," one UN diplomat told AFP.

More than 20 unarmed UN observers were allowed into Al-Kubeir on Friday, a day after monitors were shot at and prevented from entering the village.

"Inside some of the houses, blood was visible across the walls and floors. Fire was still burning outside houses and there was a strong stench of burnt flesh," UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said in New York.

At least 55 people were killed, according to the Syrian Observatory.

UN officials were unable to confirm the toll, but made clear they believe government forces and their allies were behind the attack on the mainly Sunni Muslim village surrounded by an Alawite population loyal to Assad.

Damascus denied responsibility and blamed foreign-backed "terrorists," as it has done repeatedly in the past.

"Armoured vehicle tracks were visible in the vicinity. Some homes were damaged by rockets from armoured vehicles, grenades and a range of calibre weapons," Nesirky said.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council that according to preliminary evidence, troops had surrounded Al-Kubeir and militia entered the village and killed civilians with "barbarity."

Leaders of the exiled Syrian National Council were meeting in Turkey on Saturday to pick a new leader after the resignation of Burhan Ghalioun to avert divisions in the opposition bloc.

Ghalioun resigned on May 17 after activists accused him of ignoring the Local Coordination Committees, which spearhead anti-government protests on the ground, and of allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to play a leading role within the bloc.

Sources in the group said the aim was to pick a "consensus" candidate who would be acceptable to Islamists, liberals and nationalists.

"There is a consensus inside the council that there should be a rotating presidency, so we are now changing the president for the coming three months," said Bassma Kodmani, the SNC spokeswoman for external relations.

The new leader will face the challenge of boosting the SNC's credibility with activists and rebel fighters inside Syria, as well as with the international community.

Prior to the meeting, leaders of the armed opposition called on the international community to provide them with better weaponry and support.

"Those who claim to support the Syrian opposition should begin by supporting people on the inside of Syria," said Hussein Sayyed, head of the Supreme Council for the Leadership of the Syrian Revolution, speaking by telephone to a meeting in Washington.

Sayyed denied that the opposition was too divided to merit foreign support.

"It is unacceptable for the international community to claim that it is withholding its support because of the fracturing of the opposition while the Syrian people continue to be slaughtered," he told the meeting organised by the Rethink Institute.