Secretary general says Syrian people 'are bleeding' and that crimes against humanity may have been committed

The Syrian regime has "lost its fundamental humanity" and no longer has any legitimacy, Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, said on Thursday as he described a massacre of around 90 villagers as "shocking and sickening" and demanded that the killers be brought to account.

Using some of the strongest language yet to condemn the government of Bashar al-Assad, Ban said UN monitors were shot at trying to get to the scene of the massacre on Wednesday.

He said the situation in Syria was close to breaking point and the danger of civil war was imminent and real.

The recent mass killings were "indicative of a pattern that may amount to crimes against humanity," he added. "The Syrian people are bleeding. They are angry. They want peace and dignity. Above all, they all want action."

The latest massacre, in the hamlet of al-Qubair, near Syria's fourth city of Hama, comes less than three weeks after more than 100 people were killed in Houla – an event that has sharply increased sectarian tensions and appears to be sending the country sliding towards civil war.

A loyalist civilian militia known as the Shabiha was widely accused of carrying out the Houla killings. Witnesses to the massacre in al-Qubair insisted that the Shabiha, whose members are largely from the ruling Alawite sect, had again been responsible.

Ban said the village had apparently been surrounded by Syrian forces. "The bodies of innocent civilians lying where they were, shot. Some were allegedly burned or slashed with knives," he said, adding that "each day seems to bring new additions to the grim catalogue of atrocities". Ban said it has been evident for many months that President Assad and his government "have lost all legitimacy", and added that "any regime or leader that tolerates such killing of innocents has lost its fundamental humanity".

Soon after Ban's address to the UN general assembly, Kofi Annan, the envoy he dispatched to Syria, conceded that his battered peace plan was faltering.

UN diplomats said Annan is urging the divided security council to unite and act immediately to press the Syrian government to implement his peace plan. The diplomats said Annan told council members that there must be consequences – usually a term for sanctions – for opponents of his six-point plan.

Britain's foreign secretary, William Hague, warned that the Annan peace plan was in serious trouble, and said Syria was on the edge of a worse and more bloody phase than seen so far. Hague said: "The Annan plan won't last indefinitely. Syria is clearly on the edge … of deeper violence, of deep, sectarian violence, village against village, pro-government militias against opposition areas, and of looking more like Bosnia in the 1990s than Libya last year.

"The Annan plan has clearly failed so far, but it is not dead, all hope is not lost."

The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said America was prepared to work with Assad's closest ally, Russia, on a plan that would oust him but potentially leave his regime intact.

David Cameron, who has so far failed in his attempt to soften Moscow's unwavering support for Damascus, said: "It really is appalling, what is happening in that country, and I want to see concerted action from the international community."

Two men who saw parts of the al-Qubair massacre claim that Shabiha militiamen whom they knew personally passed by with loyalist troops minutes before the killing started.

At face value, Wednesday's attack has stark similarities with the massacre in Houla on 25 May, where the bulk of those killed were women and children.

The attacks on civilian homes in al-Qubair and in Houla also appear to have been launched after shelling from tanks. Women and children have again accounted for many of the deaths, witnesses say.

Abu Hisham al-Hamawi, a resident of the Mazraat area, whose home is on the outskirts of al-Qubair, said he saw Shabiha militiamen from nearby Alawite villages pass by his home on the way to al-Qubair minutes before the attack.

"I knew some of them from school," he said. "I know their names, I know their villages. I know exactly who they are. They are Shabiha, no doubt. They passed by here with the regime army."

He said that Mazraat had not been a politically active area during the 16-month uprising, nor had it been a stronghold of the Free Syrian Army, which continues to battle loyalist forces on most days. "This is a farming community," he said.

"They are very poor people – a lot of them are shepherds. There are only a few families in the village and all of them are now dead."

Mazraat al-Qubair is near four Alawite villages, placing it in the demographically sensitive heart of Syria's uprising. "But we have never had a problem with them before now," said Abu Hisham.

"We have not even had a relationship, or any tensions. This is the first time there has been any fighting in this area. This is the first time the army has attacked us. But in the region around us, the Shabiha is very strong. So is the regime army."

A second witness, who did not want to be named, said shelling of the area had started at around 2pm.

He said gunfire then followed around 2.45pm, lasting for 30 minutes, before a second burst of fire later.

The man said there were no more than 25 homes in the village, most belonging to the Ulwan family. He said tanks moved in after the firing had stopped, levelling some of the homes. Some houses were then burned. "Some survivors tried to run away, but they shot at them in the olive orchards. There are still bodies there that no one can reach."

A third witness, Laith al-Hamawi, said he heard and saw the attack from 800 metres away. "They came from the Alawite villages, like Asseela, al-Bayat, al-Sakina," he said. "I saw the tanks enter the village and I knew some of the Shabiha personally."

Syria denied that its forces had been responsible for the latest deaths, again blaming terrorist groups, which it claims are outmanoeuvring its armed forces and slaughtering civilians.

That account was strongly challenged by witnesses, who said they had not seen any extremists in the area and claimed none could enter because of the tightly guarded Alawite villages and the heavy presence of regime troops.

"They are the terrorists," said Abu Hisham of the regime. "Their troops, intelligence agencies and loyalists. They want to install fear into our hearts."

Syria, home to a large Sunni majority, has been ruled for more than 40 years by an offshoot of Shia Islam, known as the Alawites. Sunnis have formed the backbone of the Syrian uprising, which was inspired by the Arab awakenings, but has since slowly transformed into a grinding series of battles with deep sectarian undertones.

"Syrian Sunnis don't want a war in Syria," said Abu Hisham. "Syrian Alawites want one because it's a war they can win. They have all the support, all the big weapons. If it happens, we will be the losers. We will be exterminated."


Source: The Guardian News