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Syrian Government Denies Role In Houla Massacre


The United Nations special envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, is in Damascus today to urge the Syrian government to abide by a ceasefire that most agree has been a failure - this after a horrific massacre over the weekend that left more than 100 people dead, nearly half of them children. Witnesses say Syrian army troops shelled a residential area, and then pro-government militias moved in and went on a killing spree. NPR's Kelly McEvers joins us from Beirut. And, Kelly, what happened in this village?

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: There are actually a cluster of villages called Houla, and just outside the city of Homs, which we know has been a real center of the unrest over the last several months. What we know is that like every Friday throughout the Syrian uprising - almost 15 months now - people went out to protest, and then government troops started to shell the protestors.

Houla is an area where there are anti-government rebels. These are men who've taken up arms. So they went to fight back. We know that at least three soldiers were killed. But it didn't stop there. What witnesses have told the United Nations, have told us is that at this point, pro-government militias - people who were wearing uniform, but weren't necessarily formal army - came into the area and went house to house massacring women and children, and basically anyone they would find. One witness said that the militiamen knocked on the door. They said: Are there any men here? She said: No men are here. They came inside, anyway. And she said they shot everyone in the house. She lost seven grandchildren, and she was the only one who survived.

GREENE: But despite these pretty horrifying witness accounts, the Syrian government is denying it was even involved.

MCEVERS: Right. Yesterday, the spokesman for Syria's foreign ministry said we know with absolute certainty that Syrian government troops were not involved. This is interesting on a couple of levels. First of all, the United Nations has observers in Syria now, and those observers were able to get into Houla the following day. They saw evidence of tank shells and artillery fire. They saw houses that were destroyed by these shells and artillery fire. And we know that the only institution in Syria that has tanks and artillery is the Syrian army.

The second thing is that you have to listen to the foreign minister's words carefully. He said, you know, we know that government troops were not involved. That gives him a level of deniability, because what's possible is that it was pro-government thugs, these militiamen known as the shabiha, who went in and did some of this door-to-door killing. But, again, that could not have happened without some kind of green light from the government itself.

GREENE: Well, Kelly, the U.N. Security Council has called an emergency meeting yesterday. I mean, Western countries want to condemn the Syrian government for committing international crimes. But Russia, as it often does, is blocking them. Why is that?

MCEVERS: You know, Syria is still one of Russia's main allies in the region. Syria is a major customer in terms of arms sales. And at this point, Russia is still saying that it doesn't believe that government troops are behind his massacre. They still believe it's possible that the rebels were the ones who did it, or that it might have been at the hands of terrorists. But one BBC journalist who actually made it into the village the following day said that the civilians in the village are still holed up where the rebels are positioned, and that where the army is positioned, there is not a single civilian left. So, that shows you that, you know, if the rebels were the ones who had gone off and done all this killing, it's very doubtful that the people would have stayed behind with them.

GREENE: We have talks in Moscow today, Kelly. Britain's foreign minister is going to be there. What's likely to come of those conversations?

MCEVERS: It's thought that, you know, because Russia still publicly backs the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, that they might have some sway with him, that the Russians might be able to say: Please, you know, stop the killing before it's too late. So it's thought that British Foreign Secretary William Hague will be pressuring the Russians to do this.

There's also some talk over the weekend, a report in the New York Times that Russia's considering pushing President Assad to abdicate power to a deputy, instead of facing some kind of violent downfall. But a lot of analysts, they're calling it the Yemen scenario, because that's how the dictator fell in Yemen. That scenario isn't very likely. And meanwhile, as everyone is talking about this particular massacre and what the next steps for the international community will be, Syrian government troops continue to shell residential areas yesterday in the city of Hama. We know that 27 more people were killed there.

GREENE: NPR's Kelly McEvers in Beirut, speaking to us about a weekend of violence that killed more than 100 people in Syria. Kelly, thanks.

MCEVERS: Sure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.