UN envoy Kofi Annan meets Syria's president Assad following Houla massacre


Syrian president Bashar al-Assad met peace envoy Kofi Annan on Tuesday, the state news agency SANA said, amid an outcry over a massacre of civilians that UN observers attributed at least partly to the army but the government blamed on Islamist militants.

Annan is attempting to salvage a six-week-old peace plan, backed by the United Nations and the Arab League, that has barely slowed the bloodshed in a 14-month-old uprising against Assad.

The former UN secretary general left the presidential palace after a meeting of around two hours. He had been expected to urge compliance with the ceasefire deal, designed to end a revolt that began with peaceful mass protests but has turned more and more into an armed insurgency.

On arrival in Damascus on Monday, Annan called on the authorities to act to end the killing after what he called the "appalling crime" late last week in the Syrian town of Houla, in which at least 108 people, almost half of them children, were killed.

Syrian officials denied any army role in the massacre, one of the worst since the uprising against Assad.

"During this time, Syria has not committed a single violation of Annan's plan or the initial understanding between Syria and the United Nations," deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad told reporters in Damascus.

"At the same time, the other party has not committed to a single point. This means that there is a decision by the armed groups and the opposition not to implement Annan's plan and to make it fail."

Russia and China, which have defended Assad against Western demands for UN sanctions, backed a non-binding Security Council text on Sunday that criticised the use of artillery and tanks in Houla - weaponry Syria's rebels do not have.

A UN rights spokesman in Geneva on today said fewer than 20 of the victims had been killed by artillery and tank fire, and that survivors had told UN investigators that most of the others had been executed by pro-Assad shabbiha militia.

Australia said today it was expelling two Syrian diplomats, including the chief of mission, and expected other countries to take similar action.

Western and some Sunni Muslim Arab countries want Assad to step down to help end a conflict that has now claimed some 10,000 lives by United Nations estimates.

Mekdad said he expected Annan to pressure the foreign states backing what Syria describes as a "terrorist" conspiracy funded abroad.

Sunni Muslim Gulf powers Saudi Arabia and Qatar favour arming the mostly-Sunni rebels fighting Assad, whose ruling cadre are mostly Alawites, members of an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

"We think that Mr Annan will make all efforts, in the next few days and weeks, to convince the countries that finance and support those terrorist groups to stop lying about wanting the plan to succeed," Mekdad said.