'Workers shot' in new Syria attack


Gunmen have killed 11 workers at a state factory in central Syria, activists say, the second execution-style shooting reported in the country in less than a week.

The shooting near the town of Qusair in Homs province happened as the fertiliser workers were on their way to their jobs in a bus that came under fire, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

A pro-government Facebook page, the Homs News Network, posted photos of 11 men on the floor of what appeared to be a classroom. It blamed the rebel Free Syrian Army, saying the workers were killed for being state employees. The opposition blamed the government.

Yesterday, 13 bound corpses, many apparently shot execution-style, were found in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour near the Iraqi border. The men were believed to be workers for an oil company. It was unclear who killed them.

The uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime began in March last year with largely peaceful protests calling for reform. A fierce government crackdown prompted many in the opposition take up arms.

The UN said in March that more than 9,000 people have been killed. Activists put the toll far higher, saying 13,000 have died.

Homs province, where there is significant support for the opposition, has suffered waves of deadly violence. More than 100 people were killed there during a massacre in a cluster of villages known as Houla on Friday and Saturday. Many of the dead were women and children gunned down inside their homes.

The massacre brought immediate worldwide condemnation. The regime and anti-government activists have blamed each other.

Yesterday, Syria claimed up to 800 rebel fighters carried out the Houla massacre.

The government's narrative starkly contradicted accounts of witnesses who blamed "shabiha", the shadowy gunmen who operate on behalf of Mr Assad's regime. The UN also said it had strong suspicions those pro-regime gunmen were responsible for much of the carnage in Houla.

The opposition has called for protests after Friday midday prayers to commemorate the Houla victims. The government is calling for special prayers for the victims in mosques across the country.

European countries want the UN's top human rights body to propose a war crimes probe into the Houla killing. Diplomats from the European Union are calling for an emergency meeting of the UN Human Rights Council to pass a resolution that is stronger than a draft tabled by Qatar, Turkey and the United States.

The current text says "those responsible for serious violations of human rights must be held accountable."

Three EU officials said the resolution should instead include a call for the UN Security Council to consider referring the massacre in Houla to the International Criminal Court.

In another development, a previously unknown Syrian rebel group said it is holding 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims kidnapped on May 22 after crossing into Syria from Turkey on their way to Lebanon.

Syria could be engulfed by civil war unless the international community backs calls for an independent probe into the Houla killings, the UN's top human rights official has warned.

The comments by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay came as countries lined up at an emergency meeting of the UN Human Rights Council to express their horror about the massacre.

She appealed for support for the six-point plan by international envoy Kofi Annan to halt the violence.

"Otherwise, the situation in Syria might descend into a full-fledged conflict and the future of the country, as well as the region as a whole could be in grave danger," she told the 47-nation council in a speech read out on her behalf in Geneva.

It was the fifth time that the Geneva-based council called an urgent meeting on Syria, something the country's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Fayssal al-Hamwi, said was a sign that some countries are trying to divide his country.

Mr Al-Hamwi, too, condemned the massacre in Houla but blamed it on "groups of armed terrorists" seeking to ignite sectarian strife.

US Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe said there was no doubt that the regime of President Bashar Assad was responsible for the killing.

"There needs to be justice and accountability for those that committed these atrocities," she told the council.