|Russia and China veto UN resolution on Syria |
Russia and China braved Arab and Western fury tonight by vetoing a UN resolution calling on President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
By Richard Spencer, Middle East Correspondent, Cairo
5:03PM GMT 04 Feb 2012
The two powers' refusal to back an Arab League plan for Syria came despite the vote coming within hours of the worst single act of violence in the 11-month uprising.
Days of tortuous negotiations led to a final act of brinkmanship as Russia said it could not support a resolution backing an Arab League plan for a swift transition of power and elections. It was said to have demanded a last-minute change dropping a call, already agreed by Syria in November, for tanks and artillery to be withdrawn from the streets.
That was rejected outright by Western governments after residents of Homs reported an extraordinary bombardment overnight by mortars and heavy artillery, shattering houses and sending the injured and dying flooding to hospitals and makeshift clinics. At least 200 were killed, with some activists giving figures as high as 330.
"This is a new massacre to add to the other Assad regime massacres," a lawyer and activist in the city who gave his name as Abu Jihad told The Sunday Telegraph. "We ask for international intervention to stop this."
World leaders united to condemn the attack. "Yesterday the Syrian government murdered hundreds of Syrian citizens, including women and children, in Homs," President Barack Obama said in a written statement.
"Assad must halt his campaign of killing and crimes against his own people now. He must step aside and allow a democratic transition to proceed immediately."
William Hague, the foreign secretary, said: "The Syrian regime's actions display President Assad's cold-blooded cynicism in the face of mounting international pressure for the UN security council to do its utmost to end the bloodshed.
“The escalating violence underlines the critical importance of the security council adding its weight to the Arab League's efforts to end the crisis in Syria."
The assault began without warning at 10pm on Friday evening, activists in the city and in London said, and lasted five hours. Rami Abdulrahman, of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said his contacts had counted 237 dead, including 99 women and children.
Activists speaking by phone from inside the figure said the number was even higher, but even the lower figure would make the assault the bloodiest single atrocity of the uprising.
The government claimed film footage showing the victims was a set-up using the bodies of people kidnapped and killed by “armed gangs”, and said it was a deliberate attempt to build up hostility towards the regime in advance of the UN resolution.
Within hours of the bombardment starting, pictures flooded Youtube and television stations of bodies piling up in chaotic aid stations, disfigured by explosions. Lines of lifeless young men splattered with blood packed the rooms of a mosque in one particularly gruelling clip, though it could not be confirmed they were victims of the attack.
Another clip showed a teenage boy, his face covered by his jacket.
"We were sitting inside our house when we started hearing the shelling. We felt shells were falling on our heads," a resident called Walid told Reuters. "The morning has come and we have discovered more bodies, bodies are on the streets. Some are still under the rubble."
Mr Abdulrahman said the attack was unaccountable, because there had been less conflict than usual in the city during the day, usually a day of intense protest after Friday prayers.
But he said the regime's attention had turned to Homs after a troop of soldiers had been ambushed with several deaths by Free Syrian Army fighters in Deraa, in Syria's far south.
"Two hours later they started the first bombing in Homs," he said.
Of those who died, most were from Khalidiya, a suburb that has been under effective rebel control. "Abu Jihad", who lives in Khalidiya, spoke as mass funerals began in the street behind him, divided into batches of 25 and 50, he said, to minimise the chance of troops attacking the funeral processions.
A crowd 100,000 strong had gathered in the central square of Khalidiya, renamed Hurreya or Freedom Square, and were chanting against the regime, he said.
"They fired mortars at us, just to punish us," he said. "The attack targeted civilian areas and civilian people, because Khalidiya is a symbol of the revolution in Homs."
Homs has suffered by far the most casualties of any province of the uprising. The Free Syrian Army has been patrolling some streets openly, and fighting cat-and-mouse battles with the regular army.
Mohammed Saleh, who lives outside the city but has relatives inside, said that following the bombardment there were skirmishes a mile away on the road to Hama, with soldiers firing wildly in all directions and causing more civilian casualties. The fighting centred on a base of the Mukhabarat, or General Intelligence Department.
At the United Nations, Britain, the United States and France determined to go ahead with the security council vote, believing that after constant negotiations and amendments the Russians were merely playing for time.
They rejected amendments tabled by Russia that it said would enable it to support the current draft. The amendments sought to put equal blame on the "armed elements" of the opposition for the violence in Syria.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, who had been highly critical of Western attempts to force through a resolution but had stopped short of saying he would veto it, discussed the issue with US secretary of state Hillary Clinton in Munich. He was said to have submitted the additional amendment dropping the demand for tanks and artillery to be withdrawn, part of the first Arab League peace plan agreed with Syria in November, only on Friday night.
"Our amendments do not demand any extreme efforts," he said. "If our colleagues display a constructive approach, we will get a collective Security Council resolution that I am certain all countries without exception will sign on to."
He said Russia could not support any resolution that "took sides" in a civil war.
Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, said the amendments were "unacceptable".
The draft has already been watered down from the original, which repeated almost verbatim an Arab League timetable for Mr Assad to cede powers to his deputy, oversee the formation of a unity government with the opposition, and hold elections within six months.
The subsequent version said Syria should move "in accordance with" the Arab League plan, but Russia wanted this further altered to merely "take into account" the plan.
Anger over events in Syria spilled over into European and Arab capitals, with several Syrian embassies being stormed including in London and Berlin. The embassy in Kuwait had its windows smashed, while a mob entered the ground floor of the embassy in Cairo and set fire to it.