Exclusive dispatch:

Exclusive dispatch: Assad blamed for massacre of the innocents

The war in Syria escalates with the brutal killing of 32 children

Damascus

In a massacre of unprecedented savagery that brings Syria close to civil war, some 32 children and 60 adults have been slaughtered in villages in the Houla area of central Syria. Anti-government militants blame pro-regime gunmen for carrying out the butchery in which children and their parents were hacked and shot to death.

The figure for the number of children and adults killed was confirmed in an interview with The Independent on Sunday by General Robert Mood, the head of the team of 300 UN observers which is seeking to reduce the level of violence. "My patrols went into the village," he said. "I can verify that they counted 32 children under 10 killed. In addition, there were more than 60 adults dead."

General Mood would not explain how the villagers died, but horrific pictures posted on YouTube appear to show that they were shot or knifed to death, some having their throats cut. The small bodies of the children were covered in sheets as they were taken by survivors screaming in grief and disbelief from the houses where they had been murdered.

The massacre is the worst single incident in Syria's 14-month crisis because it involved the deliberate murder of children as well as adults. Militants say the perpetrators were pro-regime gunmen, known as the shabiya, who had captured Houla. If true, the shabiya may have been members of the Alawite sect, which is supportive of the government. Alawites inhabit a string of villages south of Houla, which is 25km north-west of Homs. The Syrian leadership is largely drawn from the Alawite sect.

General Mood said that fighting around Houla started on Friday evening with the use of "tanks, artillery, rocket-propelled grenades, and heavy machine guns". This implied an attack by government forces since the insurgent Free Syrian Army does not have heavy weapons. This confirms the militants' story that there had been big anti-government protests on Friday in Houla, where there have previously been many anti-government demonstrations.

The calculated slaughter of Sunni villagers and their children by Alawites brings a new level of violence to Syria and propels it towards sectarian civil war. Yesterday, Damascus was quiet aside from one protest in an outlying district, but fighting has intensified at Rastan, north of Homs. Observers from the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMS) have mediated a ceasefire there, leaving insurgents in control of the town. But this straddles the main highway linking Damascus and Aleppo, so the government is unlikely to allow the Free Syrian Army to hold the town for long.

The Houla massacre could mark a crucial stage in the war in Syria because it will energise the insurgents inside and outside the country. It will make it more difficult for any compromise or new ceasefire to be arranged between President Bashar Assad and his opponents. It will increase hatred between Sunni and Alawites, a heterodox branch of Shia Islam. This has already been seen in the past week, with 11 Shia pilgrims kidnapped by insurgents in Syria and 10 people killed in associated violence in Lebanon. Houla is not far from the Lebanese border, and the latest atrocity is similar to what happened in the Lebanese civil war between 1975 and 1990, when different communities repeatedly massacred each other.

The pictures of the dead children of Houla are likely to create an international outcry and underline that the ceasefire arranged by the UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan is foundering. General Mood confirmed yesterday that there was no real ceasefire in Syria and said that there could not be an effective one until the combatants themselves implemented it. He emphasised that unarmed UN monitors cannot impose a truce, though in some areas, such as Homs, they have succeeded in "calming" the situation. He said: "The solution to the Syria crisis lies in the hands of the Syrian government, the fragmented opposition, and those outside fuelling the crisis by supplying arms and explosives."

Mr Annan is due in Damascus in the next few days to try to patch up a new ceasefire, but neither the government nor its opponents have carried through on past agreements. The government suppression of peaceful protest with gunfire and mass detentions has continued. At the same time, the Islamicisation and militarisation of the opposition is frightening minorities, such as the Alawites, Christians and Druze. The government is targeting moderate and secular opposition in order to present a stark choice to Syrians, and the world, between itself and Islamic fundamentalists.

Last night, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said: "There are credible and horrific reports that a large number of civilians have been massacred, including children. Our urgent priority is to ensure those responsible are held to account. We will be calling for an urgent session of the UN Security Council in the coming days. The Assad regime must cease all military operations."

The President and his First Lady... and their people

He is the President; she is the First Lady; they are dead children. He governs but doesn't protect; she shops and doesn't care; they will never grow old. His father was an autocrat; hers a Harley Street doctor; theirs are bereaved. He will sleep in his bed tonight; so will she; they will be in their graves. However you conjugate the lives of the Syrian leader and his people, there is something very wrong.

Two days ago, they were all alive. He and she in their gilded residence, looking much as they do in this photograph - he sharp-suited, she sun-glassed and with a watch of gold on her wrist. The children were in their ramshackled homes in Houla, poor but alive. Then the men of war came. When they left, the children were as you see them here in this, the most grotesque picture yet to emerge from this land of the alleged ceasefire.

There are still photographs of this scene, and video. And over the footage that would bear more than enough testimony to the redundant regime of Assad, the voice of a man can be heard screaming. "These are all children!" he cries, shrill with angry despair, "Watch, you dogs, you Arabs, you animals – look at these children, watch, just watch!"

And one hopes that those on the United Nations Security Council, when it reconvenes, will look into the staring eyes of these dead children and remember the hollow words of Assad's wife when she simpered that she "comforts the families" of her country's victims.

David Randall

From the editor...

By publishing this extremely upsetting image (second picture in the gallery, above), we may shock many readers. You may think we are guilty of bad taste. But we believe that – rarely – we need to be shocked. We need to consider the international community's failure to protect these children.

We decided to use the image on page three rather than on the front – though with a page one alert – to allow parents to consider whether their children should see it. To those who believe we are wrong to publish, or – conversely – should have published the image on the front page, we hope you accept that we have taken this option for the right reasons.

John Mullin, IoS Editor

News
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal
peopleThreats follows actress' speech on feminism and equality at the UN
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
Life and Style
tech
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
life
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
News
i100
Life and Style
life
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Systems Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Year 2 Teacher needed (Mat Cover)- Bognor Regis!

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: Year 2 Teacher currently need...

Data Analyst / Marketing Database Analyst

£24000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits