Exit Kofi Annan – with Syria still massacring its people and Russia still blocking international action

UN envoy's mission to Damascus ends in failure with Assad as defiant as ever

Kofi Annan flew out of Damascus yesterday amid news of fresh atrocities on the ground and as the Syrian opposition accused Russia of encouraging the regime to commit “savage crimes” against its people after Moscow ruled out supporting any new action at the UN.

Even as Mr Annan's observer mission announced the discovery of the bodies of 13 Syrians who appeared to have been summarily executed, Russian Deputy Foreign Minster Gennady Gatilov said any new measures at the Security Council would be "premature", diminishing hopes that the shocking massacre at Houla could break the deadlock at the Security Council.

Still reeling from the brutal killings of more than 100 civilians, including dozens of women and children, by pro-regime forces last week, Houla came under attack once more last night, as activists said the army was attempting to bleed out Free Syrian Army fighters.

"Houla is being shelled again, illustrating the desperate need for a massive UN presence on the ground with a mandate to protect the living, not just count dead children," said Ricken Patel, executive director of the activist network Avaaz, saying the number of casualties was still unclear.

It had been hoped that the international outrage after executions in the town, which will be discussed at an emergency session of the UN Human Rights Council tomorrow, would mark a turning point for Syria and pressure the country's veto-wielding allies China and Russia to harden their position against Assad.

Efforts at the United Nations to react to the Houla massacre remained mostly stymied, however. Diplomatic sources said they saw little mileage in attempting now to pass a resolution holding the Syrian government responsible because of likely opposition from Russia and China. Other countries on the Council, including Pakistan and India, would also be expected to balk.

As the former UN Secretary General arrived in Jordan after his two-day visit to Damascus – where he had met with President Bashar al-Assad in a last ditch attempt to save his six pint plan – his deputy Jean-Marie Guehenno briefed the Security Council on the talks.

Mr Guehenno said that in the closed door session he stressed the need for a political process involving both sides to avoid a "catastrophic" civil war.

However, Syrian National Council (SNC) and two other opposition groups called for international intervention under Chapter Seven of the UN Charter, which would allow for military force.

"We urge the United Nations Security Council and the international community to take up their responsibilities and intervene immediately to protect the innocent population and end the crimes by the regime, through decisive and unequivocal resolutions under Chapter Seven," the groups said in a statement after a meeting in Bulgaria.

Haitham al-Maleh, a senior opposition figure, told The Independent that Annan's plan had reached a dead end. "There must be steps at the UN Security Council, and if that can't happen they have to let us have weapons to build our army so we can finish this regime by force," he said.

Ahead of visits by President Vladimir Putin to Paris and Berlin tomorrow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said any pressure on him to change his stance on Syria, which notably rules out any outside military intervention and anything resembling it, would be "hardly appropriate".

One possible response being floated by some European countries is increasing the number of blue-beret observers in Syria in the hope of at least of discouraging fresh violence and also raising the chances that they can bear witness. That, one diplomat said, would make it harder for Russia to insist that government-backed militia are not responsible. But aides to Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary-General, have cautioned that raising the number of monitors above the nearly 300 who are there now could make them more vulnerable to attack.

The regime is becoming increasingly internationally isolated with Japan and Turkey yesterday joining 11 other nations, including Britain, France, the Netherlands and Australia, to expel senior Syrian diplomats. Syria yesterday expelled the Dutch charge d'affairs to Damascus in an apparent retaliation.

The head of the monitoring mission Maj Gen Robert Mood yesterday said he was "deeply disturbed" by his team's discovery of 13 the corpses near the eastern city of Deir al-Zour.

"All the bodies had their hands tied behind their backs and some appear to have been shot in the head from a short distance," he said. A spokesman for the mission said they could give no indication as to which side carried out the slaughter. A video purporting to show the scene showed the bodies of the blindfolded boundmen, all wearing civilian clothes, lying in rows face down on the ground.

Syrians may have to compete at 2012 Olympics under neutral flag

Syrian athletes attending the London 2012 Olympics may have to compete under the neutral Olympic flag, after ministers called for officials with links to President Bashar al-Assad to be banned.

While David Cameron insisted that Syrian athletes should be free to compete, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has come under increasing pressure to ban Syrian officials. The only other team not competing under their own flag will be Kuwait, whose Olympic authority was suspended for political interference.

The head of the Syrian Olympic Committee, Mowaffak Jouma, told the BBC: "If the British government has decided to ban anyone connected to the regime and to President Bashar-al Assad, I am telling you in advance they should ban all Syrian citizens, because we all support President Assad and support Syria."

Richard Hall

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