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Syria authorities, opposition trade blame in civilian deaths

Dozens are killed in Homs, possibly as part of a grisly PR campaign. Hillary Rodham Clinton criticizes Syria's Bashar Assad and spars with a Russian diplomat.

March 12, 2012|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • A man carries a boy wounded during fighting between government forces and rebels in Idlib, Syria, on Sunday.
A man carries a boy wounded during fighting between government forces and… (Rodrigo Abd, Associated…)

Reporting from Beirut — Dozens of civilians were murdered in the strife-torn city of Homs, the Syrian government and opposition activists said Monday, as diplomats in New York and elsewhere struggled to forge terms for a possible cease-fire.

Each side in the Syrian conflict blamed the other for the latest carnage in Homs, which has suffered the highest number of casualties in the almost yearlong rebellion against President Bashar Assad.

Opposition advocates said security services killed at least 53 people Sunday, all but six of them women and children. Many had their throats slit, the opposition said, and most were from the Homs neighborhood of Karm Zeitoun, where armed rebels have clashed with government security forces.

The official Syrian Arab News Agency in turn reported that "terrorist armed groups" in Homs had kidnapped and killed "scores of civilians," mutilated their bodies and filmed the corpses.

The killers' motivation, the state media said, was public relations: using the harrowing images in a worldwide campaign to blame Syrian security personnel for coldblooded massacre.

Syrian authorities have repeatedly accused the two major Arab-language satellite channels, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, of fomenting rebellion in Syria at the behest of the networks' backers in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, respectively. The two Persian Gulf kingdoms have spearheaded the Arab world's political campaign to isolate Assad and have publicly called for arming Syrian rebels.

Gruesome images purporting to show victims lying in a blood-spattered room and on rubble-strewn streets appeared on the Internet, the pan-Arab satellite networks and Syrian state television.

The circumstances behind the latest killings remained unclear. But the images provided a dark backdrop for the latest round of diplomatic wrangling.

Kofi Annan, a special envoy seeking peace in Syria, visited Qatar and Turkey on Monday after two days of talks with Assad in Damascus that yielded no breakthrough.

"These are grave and appalling reports of atrocities and abuses" in Syria, Annan, a former United Nations secretary-general, told reporters in Ankara, the Turkish capital, Reuters reported. He is representing the U.N. and the Arab League in his mission.

In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on the Syrian president to act within days on Annan's proposals aimed at curbing the bloodshed.

At a meeting of U.N. Security Council members in New York, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Assad "cynical" for receiving Annan even as his army was launching an assault on the northwestern province of Idlib and "continuing its aggression" in the restive cities of Hama, Homs and Rastan.

The top U.S. diplomat indicated that Washington and Moscow still had major differences in their efforts to craft a diplomatic solution for Syria. Russia and China last month vetoed a U.S.-backed proposal at the U.N. that would have called on Assad to cede power.

On Monday, Clinton appeared to criticize a new Russian initiative. Moscow's proposal says nothing about Assad stepping down but mandates that both sides in the Syrian conflict withdraw their forces, subject to inspection by international monitors. Clinton drew a pointed distinction between the two sides.

"We reject any equivalence between premeditated murders by a government's military machine and the actions of civilians under siege driven to self-defense," Clinton said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov acknowledged that Syrian officials bear "a huge share of the responsibility." But he disputed Clinton's narrative of self-defense on the streets of Homs and elsewhere in Syria. Echoing the Syrian government position, Lavrov said Syrian forces were battling armed militants, among them fighters affiliated with Al Qaeda.

The continued differences between Washington and Moscow would suggest that a Security Council consensus on Syria may remain elusive. There is, however, broad support for Annan's peace mission, though his efforts have yet to yield concrete results.

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