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

Arts and Entertainment
A host of big name acts recorded 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' in London on Saturday
musicCharity single tops chart
News
people
News
peopleChildren leave in tears as Santa is caught smoking and drinking
Arts and Entertainment
Uuganaa Ramsay
arts + entsHow the proud name of a people became an offensive term
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
peopleFormer civil rights activist who was jailed for smoking crack cocaine has died aged 78
News
Boxing promoter Kellie Maloney, formerly known as Frank Maloney, entered the 2014 Celebrity Big Brother house
people
Sport
Dwight Gayle (left) celebrates making it 1-1 with Crystal Palace captain Mile Jedinak
premier leagueReds falter to humbling defeat
Arts and Entertainment
Morgana Robinson
arts + entsIt is not easy interviewing Morgana Robinson. Here's why...
News
video
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

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Solicitor NQ+ Oxford

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CORPORATE - Corporate Solicitor NQ+ An excelle...

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin