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

Voices
Numbers of complaints about unwanted calls have trebled in just six months
voices
News
people
Arts & Entertainment
Picture of innocence: Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington in ‘Derek’
tvReview: The insights of Ricky Gervais's sweet and kind character call to mind Karl Pilkington's faux-naïf podcast observations
Arts & Entertainment
Tangled up in blue: Singer-songwriter Judith Owen
musicAnd how husband Harry Shearer - of Spinal Tap and The Simpsons fame - helped her music flourish
VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Paul Weller: 'I am a big supporter of independent record stores but the greedy touts making a fast buck off genuine fans is disgusting'
music
Arts & Entertainment
William Shakespeare's influence on English culture is still strongly felt today, from his plays on stage to words we use everyday
arts
Sport
Karim Benzema celebrates scoring the opening goal
sportReal Madrid 1 Bayern Munich 0: Germans will need their legendary self-belief to rescue Champions League tie in second leg
Life & Style
Looking familiar: The global biometrics industry is expected to grow to $20bn by 2020
tech
Sport
Manchester United manager David Moyes has claimed supporters understand the need to look at
sportScot thanks club staff and fans, but gives no specific mention of players
News
Strange 'quack' noises could be undersea chatter of Minke whales
science
News
weird news... and film it, obviously
Life & Style
Balancing act: City workers at the launch of Cityfathers
lifeThe organisation is the brainchild of Louisa Symington-Mills who set up Citymothers in 2012 - a group boasting more than 3,000 members
Arts & Entertainment
tv
News
Fresh hope: Ruth Womak and her dog Jess. A free training course in basic computing skills changed Ruth’s life
educationHow a housing association's remarkable educational initiative gave hope to tenant battling long-term illness and depression
News
Rohff is one of France’s most popular rappers
people
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Construction Solicitor – Surrey

Excellent Salary Package: Austen Lloyd: This is a rare high level opportunity ...

Construction Solicitor NQ+ Manchester

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: This is an excellent opportunity within...

Corporate Finance

£80000 - £120000 per annum + Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: US QUALI...

Banking / Finance Associate - City

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: Banking / Finance Associate - We have an exce...

Day In a Page

Migrants in Britain a decade on: The Poles who brought prosperity

Migrants in Britain a decade on

The Poles who brought prosperity
Philippe Legrain: 'The eurozone crisis has tipped many into disillusionment, despair and extremism - we need a European Spring'

Philippe Legrain: 'We need a European Spring'

The eurozone crisis has tipped many into disillusionment, despair and extremism - this radically altered landscape calls for a new kind of politics, argues the economist
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A moment of glory on the Western Front for the soldiers of the Raj

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A moment of glory on the Western Front for the soldiers of the Raj
Judith Owen reveals how husband Harry Shearer - star of This Is Spinal Tap and The Simpsons - helped her music flourish

Judith Owen: 'How my husband helped my music flourish'

Her mother's suicide and father's cancer also informed the singer-songwriter's new album, says Pierre Perrone
The online lifeline: How a housing association's remarkable educational initiative gave hope to tenant battling long-term illness and depression

Online lifeline: Housing association's educational initiative

South Yorkshire Housing Association's free training courses gave hope to tenant battling long-term illness and depression
Face-recognition software: Is this the end of anonymity for all of us?

Face-recognition software: The end of anonymity?

The software is already used for military surveillance, by police to identify suspects - and on Facebook
Train Kick Selfie Guy is set to scoop up to $250,000 thanks to his viral video - so how can you cash in on your candid moments?

Viral videos: Cashing in on candid moments

Train Kick Selfie Guy Jared Frank could receive anything between $30,000 to $250,000 for his misfortune - and that's just his cut of advertising revenue from being viewed on YouTube
The world's fastest elevators - 20 metres per second - are coming soon to China

World's fastest elevators coming soon to China

Whatever next? Simon Usborne finds out from Britain's highest authority on the subject
Cityfathers tackles long-hours culture that causes men to miss out on seeing their children

Cityfathers tackles long-hours culture

The organisation is the brainchild of Louisa Symington-Mills, a chief operating officer who set up Citymothers in 2012 - a group that now boasts more than 3,000 members
Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home

It's not always fun in the sun: Moving abroad does not guarantee happiness

Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home
Migrants in Britain a decade on: They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire

Migrants in Britain a decade on

They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire
Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

The 'Thick of It' favourite thinks the romcom is an 'awful genre'. So why is he happy with a starring role in Sky Living's new Lake District-set series 'Trying Again'?
Why musicians play into their old age

Why musicians play into their old age

Nick Hasted looks at how they are driven by a burning desire to keep on entertaining fans despite risking ridicule
How can you tell a gentleman?

How can you tell a gentleman?

A list of public figures with gallant attributes by Country Life magazine throws a fascinating light on what it means to be a gentleman in the modern world
Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

The duo behind Asos and Achica have launched a new venture offering haute couture to help make furry companions fashionable