West expels envoys over massacre of Syrian children
BEIRUT: Western powers expelled Syria's envoys on Tuesday in outrage at a massacre of 108 people, almost half of them children, and peace envoy Kofi Annan urged President Bashar al-Assad to halt the bloodshed as "a tipping point" had been reached.
The killings in the town of Houla drew a chorus of condemnation from around the world, with the United Nations saying entire families were killed in their homes on Friday, some by army tanks and others probably by pro-Assad militia.
"Bashar al-Assad is the murderer of his people," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told Le Monde. "He must relinquish power. The sooner the better."
U.S. State Department spokeswoman described an "absolutely indefensible, vile, despicable massacre against innocent children, women, shot at point blank range by regime thugs."
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous, whose monitors are in Syria, contradicted the Assad's government assertion that the killings were carried out by terrorist gangs.
"Part of the victims had been killed by artillery shells, now that points ever so clearly to the responsibility of the government. Only the government has heavy weapons, has tanks, has howitzers," Ladsous told reporters, adding:
"But there are also victims from individual weapons, victims from knife wounds and that of course is less clear but probably points the way to the (pro-Assad) shabbihas, the local militia."
The United States, France, Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy, Spain, Australia and Bulgaria gave Syria's envoys hours or days to leave their capitals in a coordinated move meant to isolate Assad further diplomatically.
Some had already expelled ambassadors or downgraded ties and so, like Washington, ordered out less senior charges d'affaires.
Western countries that have called for Assad to step down hope the Houla killings will tip global opinion, notably that of Syria's main protector Russia, towards more effective action.
The killings have contributed to doubt about whether a peace plan backed by Annan, a former U.N. secretary general, has any chance of success. Some of Assad's opponents say Annan's plan is only making the situation worse by buying Assad time.
"WE ARE AT A TIPPING POINT"
Annan said that in his talks with the Syrian leader in Damascus he "conveyed in frank terms the grave concern of the international community about the violence in Syria, including the recent shocking events in Houla."
"We are at a tipping point. The Syrian people do not want the future to be one of bloodshed and division. Yet the killings continue and the abuses are still with us today."
More than 10,000 people have died in the uprising against Assad and a crackdown by his loyalists, which began in March last year as part of a wave of revolts across the Arab world.
Western leaders have loudly called for Assad to go for months, but have so far shown little appetite for the sort of armed intervention that toppled Libya's Muammar Gaddafi last year. Any suggestion that force might be threatened has been blocked at the U.N. Security Council by Moscow and Beijing.
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French President Francois Hollande said armed intervention could not be ruled out, but only with Sec