Secretary of state Hillary Clinton has said the perpetrators of the Houla massacre must be held to account, as she vowed greater international pressure to hound Syrian president Bashar al-Assad from power.
In a strongly worded statement condemning the attack – which left more 90 dead including 32 children – Clinton accused Assad and his cronies of ruling by “murder and fear” adding that the regime must “come to an end”.
The comments came amid reports that President Barack Obama is preparing to push Russia to back the departure of Assad under a scheme modelled on the transition of power in Yemen.
According to an article in the New York Times, Obama hopes to enlist President Vladimir Putin’s support over a transition of power in Syriaduring a meeting next month – the first between the pair since Putin’s return to the Kremlin.
Under the reported plan, the international community would broker a settlement in which Assad would leave, but remnants of the political structure would remain intact.
It is seen as a variant of the scheme under which President Ali Abdullah Saleh handed over power in Yemen following widespread unrest last year.
White House officials have indicated that Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev was receptive to the scheme when he met Obama at Camp David on the sidelines of the G8 summit.
But for the plan to have a chance of succeeding it would need greater backing from Moscow, which to date has been strongly opposed to Assad’s removal.
Russia, as one of Assad’s few remaining allies, has long blocked tough sanctions against the regime proposed by the United Nations, claiming that it could lead to the bloody ouster of Assad.
But the breakdown of the already fragile Syrian peace process amid horrific scenes could push Moscow towards using its influence in the strife-torn country to assist a transition of power.
The atrocity in Houla, a rebel-controlled village near the city of Homs, has lead to widespread condemnation.
Video footage of the atrocity’s aftermath shows rows of dead and badly mutilated infants amongst the scores of victims. The violence began mid-day on Friday as soldiers and pro-government forces entered the village and killed residents in the homes, it has been reported.
The UN team in Syria described the attack as “indiscriminate and unforgivable” but declined to directly point the finger at Assad’s loyalists.
State-run television blamed “terrorist gangs” for the deaths, a claim that has been largely met by scepticism by the international onlookers.
Clinton said the US condemned the massacre “in the strongest possible terms”. She described Friday’s events as “a vicious assault that involved a regime artillery and tank barrage on a residential neighbourhood”.
Vowing to work with the international community to bring an end to Assad’s regime, Clinton added: “We stand in solidarity with the Syrian people and the peaceful marchers in cities across Syria who have taken to the streets to denounce the massacre in Houla.”