International outrage over violence in Syria neared the boiling point Tuesday as the U.S. and other Western nations expelled Syrian diplomats for Friday's massacre of at least 108 people, mostly women and children, in a western village in the strife-racked country.
The Obama administration ordered Zuheir Jabbour, Syria's top diplomat in Washington, to leave the U.S. within 72 hours.
Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Spain also announced they were kicking out Syrian diplomats in a coordinated effort to pressure Syrian President Bashar Assad to end a bloody crackdown on the 15-month-old uprising against his regime.
Friday's slaughter in Houla in the western Homs province, where the U.N. confirmed that 34 women and 49 children were among the 108 slain civilians, brought the most vehement international condemnation of the Assad regime to date.
"We hold the Syrian government responsible for this slaughter of innocent lives," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday. "This massacre is the most unambiguous indictment to date of the Syrian government's flagrant violations of its U.N. Security Council obligations ... along with the regime's ongoing threat to peace and security."
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the international community is aiming to increase pressure on the Assad regime "to get the message across to them that the world ... is appalled by the violence that has continued, by the behavior of the regime and by the murder of so many innocent people, including in the terrible massacre."
More than 9,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Syria and tens of thousands displaced since the uprising against Mr. Assad started 15 months ago, according to the U.N.
At a 'tipping point'
The international pressure mounted as the U.N.'s special envoy, Kofi Annan, met Mr. Assad in Damascus in a desperate effort to salvage a peace plan put forward in March.
The six-point U.N.-brokered peace plan calls on the Syrian government to withdraw its troops and heavy weaponry from populated areas.
Mr. Annan, a former U.N. secretary-general who has described the massacre in Houla as an "appalling crime," said after his meeting with Mr. Assad that Syria is at a "tipping point."
"The Syrian people do not want the future to be one of bloodshed and division, yet the killings continue and the abuses are still with us today," he added.
But Syrian activists expressed doubt about the Annan plan.
"We think the regime has from Day One done a lot of things to make sure that the [Annan] plan will get killed," Jabber Za'aen, a spokesman for the Local Coordination Committees in Syria, a network of activists, said in a phone interview with reporters.
Mr. Assad and the rebels signed the peace deal six weeks ago, but the bloodshed has not slowed. U.N. observers in Syria have reported continued violence, which they have barely managed to avoid.
A U.N. spokesman said most of the villagers slaughtered in Houla had been executed in their homes.
"It appears that most of the people who were killed were summarily executed," said Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. "The fact that so many children seem to have been ruthlessly killed is truly appalling."
Witnessing the horror
Witnesses blamed pro-government thugs known as "shabiha" for the onslaught.
"There have been at least two episodes where shabiha militia, according to the local people, entered homes in Houla and slaughtered people in their own houses," Mr. Colville said in a telephone interview from Geneva.
U.N. investigators found that fewer than 20 of the victims had been killed by tank and artillery fire.
Most of the victims were in Taldaou, one of the villages in Houla, which is a collection of villages and towns.
An elderly survivor of the massacre told Human Rights Watch how she hid behind a door in her home after armed men barged in and started shouting at her family.
"After three minutes, I heard all my family members screaming and yelling. The children, all aged between 10 and 14, were crying," said the woman, whose name was not revealed but is a member of the Abdel Razzak family.
She said she heard several gunshots as she crawled on the floor to see what was happening. After the gunmen left, she peered outside to find all of her family members had bullet wounds in their heads and bodies.
U.N. investigators do not have enough evidence to link the Houla massacre to the Assad government; however, the shabiha have been part of the regime's crackdown on multiple occasions.
"The shabiha sometimes have acted in concert with the armed forces, and the armed forces were clearly in action with their artillery and tanks" in Houla, said Mr. Colville.
A call for action
Mr. Hague, Britain's foreign secretary, said the international community is looking at different ways to increase pressure on the Assad regime, including discussions in the European Union to tighten sanctions.
"We will continue to discuss this with Russia, since Russia has particular leverage over the regime and, therefore, a particular role in this crisis," he said.
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.
Lt. Col. Qassim Saad al-Din, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, which is made up of Syrian army deserters, said some residents had fled following the massacre, but those trapped in Houla were living in siegelike conditions.
The Assad regime is using helicopters against civilians and knives to kill children as young as 3 years old, said Col. al-Din.
"The United Nations and the international community have not stepped up to their job to protect civilians," he added.
• Susan Crabtree contributed to this report.
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