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Russia, which sells arms to Syria and is a close ally of Mr. Assad, has blocked U.N. resolutions calling for action against the regime.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov this week said there was no doubt that Syrian forces had used tanks and artillery, but he blamed both sides for the massacre. The Assad government says “terrorists” are to blame.

Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney welcomed the expulsion of the Syrian diplomats, but said it underscores the need for “more assertive measures to end the Assad regime.”

“President Obama’s lack of leadership has resulted in a policy of paralysis that has watched Assad slaughter 10,000 individuals,” Mr. Romney said.

He said the U.S. should pressure Russia to stop selling arms to the Assad regime and stop blocking U.N. efforts to end the violence. He also suggested that the U.S. work with its international partners to arm the opposition.

Another Republican critic repeated his call for arming Syria’s rebels.

“This latest attempt to win over Russia, like the failed Annan plan, is but a rationalization for inaction,” said Sen. John McCain of Arizona. “It is clear that nothing in Syria will change for the better until the balance of power on the ground shifts against Assad.”

‘A major shift’

Amnesty International said Russia and China must stop shielding Syria.

“Now is the time for Russia to stop protecting the Syrian government from U.N. Security Council action that can end the violence,” said Sanjeev Bery, Amnesty International USA’s Middle East and North Africa advocacy director.

The Security Council has demanded that the Syrian government stop using heavy weapons and immediately pull back its troops from population centers. The council is expected to meet Wednesday in New York to discuss Syria.

The Houla massacre could mark a turning point in the international community’s response to the Assad regime’s bloody crackdown on the pro-democracy uprising.

“The massacre in Houla was a major shift for the international community, because they have been running away from facing the reality of what is happening on the ground,” Khaled Saleh, a representative of the Syrian Revolution General Commission, told reporters in a phone briefing Tuesday.

“But when you have [more than 30] children massacred, I think the international community understood that it’s time to start putting more pressure on the regime,” he added.

On Tuesday, Syrian troops had surrounded Houla.

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