UN considers response to Houla massacre as bloodshed continues


An emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council was convened last night to co-ordinate the international community's response to the growing bloodshed in Syria amid widespread condemnation of the Houla massacre, in which 116 people, including at least 34 children, were killed.

The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said he was "absolutely sickened" by the deaths in Syria at the weekend. "It is a familiar tactic of the Assad regime to blame others for what's happening in their country to try to get out of responsibility for the scale of the destruction," he said.

Mr Hague is due to arrive in Moscow today. He is expected to urge the Russian Foreign Minister to take a much tougher stance over the human rights abuses committed by the Assad regime. Russia and China have been the main opponents of stronger action against the Syrian government.

"It isn't in the interests of Russia, it's not in anyone's interests, for Syria to descend into an even bloodier situation and into a full-scale civil war and that's now the danger," Mr Hague said.

Diplomats said Britain and France had proposed issuing a press statement condemning the killings, but Russia told council members it could not agree and wanted to be briefed first by Major-General Robert Mood, who is heading the UN observer mission in Syria.

Syria is once more facing diplomatic isolation. Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab League envoy, is due back in Damascus today for talks aimed at rescuing his foundering peace plan.

The Syrian government denies its forces were responsible for the killings at Houla that have seized the attention of the world. Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi disputed those accounts, saying Syria is being subjected to a "tsunami of lies". But it has not produced a credible alternative explanation of what happened to cast doubt on the claims of the opposition, largely confirmed by UN ceasefire monitors, that the slaughter was carried out by pro-government forces, possibly including Alawite militia.

As the Security Council met, activists said at least 30 people were killed when tanks shelled residential neighbourhoods in the city of Hama that have been serving as a base for rebel attacks against loyalist forces.