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U.N. monitors in Syria report new massacre

By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times –

BEIRUT — U.N. monitors in Syria reported a new massacre Wednesday as diplomats at U.N. headquarters in New York scrambled to revive the faltering peace plan devised by special envoy Kofi Annan.

The latest atrocity — 13 men were found bound and shot near the eastern city of Dair Alzour — wasn’t as gruesome as the massacre last week in Houla, where more than 100 people, mostly women and children, were killed, sparking international outrage.

However, this latest incident again raised fears that Syria is headed inexorably into a vicious cycle of tit-for-tat mass killings and civil war.

“All of the bodies had their hands tied behind their backs and some appear to have been shot in the head from a short distance,” the U.N. said in a statement.

Maj. Gen. Robert Mood of Norway, head of the U.N. observer mission, called on both sides “to exercise restraint and end the cycle (of) violence for the sake of Syria and the Syrian people.”

The general’s plea came a day after Annan visited Damascus, the Syrian capital, and met with President Bashar Assad, urging him to “act now” to implement the U.N.-brokered peace blueprint. The plan, which went into effect with a cease-fire on April 12, has failed to stop the bloodshed.

In New York, members of the U.N. Security Council sought ways to salvage the agreement. Among other things, it calls for both sides to cease hostilities and mandates that the government remove troops and heavy armor from populated areas.

After Annan’s deputy briefed the council members, Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s U.N. ambassador, acknowledged to reporters that “there are very few positive elements.”

Russia has been Assad’s principal international ally and has twice led U.N. vetoes against resolutions that would have condemned Syria’s crackdown on protests. On Wednesday, Russia said new sanctions or other actions against Syria would be premature. The U.S. and its allies seeking Assad’s ouster are expected to seek additional economic or other penalties in a bid to squeeze Assad’s government.

Turkey, Syria’s neighbor, joined the list of about a dozen nations that have expelled Syrian ambassadors in recent days as a protest of the massacre in Houla.

Russia has labeled the expulsions “counterproductive” because the absence of diplomatic personnel hinders bilateral communication.

The United States and the Syrian opposition allege that pro-Assad militiamen carried out the killings in Houla. But Syria has blamed them on “terrorists” seeking to sow sectarian tensions and torpedo Annan’s peace plan. Syria vows to seek justice against the killers once an investigation is complete later this week.

“We are not a banana republic,” Syria’s U.N. ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, told reporters after he was pressed as to why the alleged perpetrators had not been arrested. “We need an investigation. We need judges. We need to go through the law.”

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