Syria isolated as Western capitals expel diplomats

Europe and US ratchet up diplomatic pressure on Assad's pariah state

Bashar al-Assad's regime was facing increasing isolation yesterday with nearly a dozen Western states expelling Syrian envoys in retaliation for the Houla massacre, and with renewed calls for the United Nations to impose far-reaching sanctions.

In a day of intense diplomatic activity, 11 countries including Britain and the United States threw out senior embassy staff. The co-ordinated moves came as the UN representative, Kofi Annan, met President Assad in Damascus in an attempt to rescue what was left of his peace plan and stress the "grave concern of the international community" at the violence, which shows no signs of abating. "We are at a tipping point," Mr Annan said after a meeting Assad yesterday. "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."

President Assad, however, reiterated his claim that the killing of 108 civilians in Houla on Friday was the work of "terrorists". Armed gangs had stepped up bombings and shootings as well as carrying out abductions while his own forces were exercising restraint, he insisted. Regime officials maintained that the outside world was being subjected to a propaganda offensive in tandem with the insurgent offensive in Syria.

Overall there appears to be a growing feeling that Mr Annan's six-point plan to end the strife was failing and the deaths of more than 100 civilians, including women and children, in the Houla region may become the catalyst for more direct action against the Syrian regime by the countries supporting the opposition.

By yesterday evening, Britain, the US, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, Bulgaria and Switzerland had all announced the expulsion of Syrian diplomats, with pledges that other measures would follow.

France was first to take diplomatic action, asking the Syrian ambassador Lamia Shakkour to leave within 48 hours. "Bashar al-Assad is the murderer of his people," said France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. "He must relinquish power. The sooner the better." President François Hollande said he held discussions with David Cameron and the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon before announcing the step as part "of a certain number of pressure tactics".

The US administration gave Syrian chargé d'affaires, Zuheir Jabbor, three days to leave the country. The State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said of the Houla attack: "We hold the Syrian government responsible for this slaughter of innocent lives."

In London, William Hague stated that the chargé d'affaires, Ghassan Dalla, and two other diplomats had been told to leave the country within seven days as "an expression of horror" at the actions of the regime. Mr Dalla confirmed the news. It is believed a small caretaker staff will remain in London.

One nation in which Syrian diplomats remain firmly entrenched, however, is Russia, which has proved to be Assad's firmest ally during the 14-month crisis. Mr Hague visited the country on Monday, but failed to persuade Moscow to support stronger action against Syria through the UN. Mr Hague acknowledged that Russia "had a different attitude to the Assad regime" but said Western nations would continue to urge Moscow to use its leverage with Assad.

In Germany, the Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, said his government would push for the UN Security Council to consider further sanctions against the regime. "They bear responsibility for the terrible events in Houla," he said. "Those who use heavy weapons against their own people must expect serious diplomatic and political consequences."

Most of Houla victims shot at close range

Most of the 108 victims of the Houla massacre were executed at point-blank range in their homes and fewer than 20 were killed by shellfire, the UN human rights office said yesterday.

Survivors say that the slaughter of the villagers, 83 of whom were women and children, was carried out by a pro-government militia from nearby Alawite villages called the Shabiha who went house-to-house on a killing spree after an artillery bombardment.

Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the UN Human Rights Commissioner, said UN ceasefire monitors found fewer than 20 of the dead were killed by artillery fire. The rest appeared to have been shot at close range.

Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that at noon on 25 May anti-government protesters gathered in Taldou. They were shot at by soldiers at a checkpoint. Armed militants attacked the checkpoint, provoking shelling of Houla by tanks and mortars. At about 6.30pm, gunmen attacked houses near Houla dam and killed people belonging to an extended family.

Patrick Cockburn

News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
Life & Style
life
Arts & Entertainment
Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones
tv
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Extras
indybest
News
The academic, Annamaria Testa, has set out on her website a list of 300 English words that she says Italians ought to stop using
newsAcademic speaks out against 'Italianglo' - the use of English words in Italian language
Life & Style
tech
Arts & Entertainment
Ricky Gervais at a screening of 'Muppets Most Wanted' in London last month
tvRicky Gervais on the return of 'Derek' – and why he still ignores his critics
Sport
Luis Suarez of Liverpool celebrates his goal
sport
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatreReview: Of Mice and Men, Longacre Theatre
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

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

Education: Secret of Taunton's success

Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
10 best smartphones

10 best smartphones

With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal