U.N. envoy Kofi Annan in Syria to try to save peace plan

BEIRUT — Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan arrived Monday in Damascus, Syria’s capital, to try to rescue an already-faltering peace plan set back further by the massacre of more than 100 civilians, but there was no sign of diplomatic progress.

The United Nations special envoy seemed to recognize that his blueprint, widely ignored since a cease-fire was declared in April, faced increasingly long odds. The truce was technically in effect on Friday when the civilians, most of them women and children, were massacred in Houla, a township in the central province of Homs.

Annan said he was “personally shocked and horrified by the tragic incident in Houla” and declared that “a critical moment” had arrived.

“I urge the government to take bold steps to signal that it is serious in its intentions to resolve this crisis peacefully,” said Annan, speaking a day after the U.N. Security Council linked the Houla bloodshed to a government artillery and tank barrage on the town.

“And this message of peace is not only for the government,” Annan said, “but for everyone with a gun.”

It was clear that events in Houla had added a sense of urgency to Annan’s mission. Amateur footage of the battered bodies of children was posted online and prompted international disgust and outrage.

Annan’s agenda, observers say, is to try to exert pressure on the Syrian government and resuscitate the peace plan. But a withdrawal of troops and armor from populated areas, one of the requirements of the plan, would open the way for rebel forces to assert control in strongholds such as Houla and Homs.

An opposition activist claimed Monday that a government assault Sunday in another area, rebel-held sections of the central city of Hama, killed as many as 42 people. The government did not immediately comment on the report, which could not be independently verified.

Activists and witnesses said merchants held a general strike Monday in the Hamadiya Souk, the oldest and main market in the capital, to protest the killings in Houla.

Syria’s most powerful international ally, Russia, signaled that it had no intention of abandoning President Bashar Assad’s government.

Russia signed on to Sunday’s nonbinding Security Council resolution condemning the killings in Houla and Syria’s use of heavy weaponry on the civilian population there. AtMoscow’sinsistence, however, the wording was modified so that the Syrian government was not directly blamed for the deaths.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he was “deeply alarmed” by the killings in Houla but that the murky evidence suggested both government and opposition forces were probably responsible. The area where the killings occurred, he said, was under rebel control but surrounded by government forces.

“We are dealing with a situation in which both sides evidently had a hand in the deaths of innocent people,” Lavrov told reporters in Moscow.

Other Russian officials and much of the Russian media came to a similar conclusion. The fact that not all the victims died from shelling — many were reported to have succumbed to close-range shooting or knife wounds — was cited in Moscow as evidence that both sides were to blame.

“There is no doubt that the government used artillery and tanks,” Lavrov said. “There is also no doubt that many bodies have been found with injuries from firearms received at point-blank range. So the blame must be determined objectively.”

The Syrian opposition has its explanation: Government thugs moved in after the shelling to finish off the victims.

Russia’s position on the matter is critical. On two previous occasions, it has vetoed U.S.-backed resolutions condemning Syria’s crackdown on dissidents.

The Syrian government has blamed the killings in Houla on “terrorists,” its shorthand for antigovernment rebels. In the government version, the people were killed in order to shift the blame to the Syrian security services and thus sabotage Annan’s peace process.

The U.N. peace effort is widely acknowledged to be the only option at the moment.

“The alternatives,” said British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who was in Moscow, " are the Annan plan or ever-increasing chaos in Syria and a descent closer and closer to all-out civil war and collapse.”

Special correspondents Rima Marrouch in Amman, Jordan, and Alexandra Sandels in Beirut contributed to this report.