UN human rights officials on Tuesday said most of the 108 victims of a massacre in Syria last week were shot at close range “execution style.”
The massacre on Friday in Houla – which included 34 women, 49 children, and in some cases entire families – generated new international outrage after 14-months of bloodletting in Syria.
More than half a dozen countries – France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia and the United States – all took action against Syrian diplomats in protest.
In most cases, Damascus' envoys were given 48 hours to depart their host countries.
Russia has largely stood by Damascus and shielded it from international action. However, Moscow is growing increasingly critical — particularly over the Houla massacre.
On Tuesday, despite reports of a second massacre that left at least 41 dead, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused unnamed countries of trying to use the Houla killings "as a pretext for taking military measures."
Lavrov's comments seemed to be in reference that officials in Washington are now mulling whether to begin arming the Free Syrian Army rebels fighting Assad's regime.
Western European nations, most notably France, have been lobbying for the West to arm and train the poorly organized and equipped FSA – but few want to go on record to say the UN-backed Annan plan is failing.
"We are at a tipping point," UN envoy Kofi Annan told reporters Tuesday in Damascus, following a meeting with President Bashar Assad.
"The Syrian people do not want the future to be one of bloodshed and division," he said, calling on the government and the armed opposition to stop all violence.
The UN report on Houla was based on reports from International observers and indicated most of the dead were "killed execution-style, with fewer than 20 people cut down by regime shelling."
UN observers cited survivors and witnesses blaming the house-to-house killings on pro-government thugs known as shabiha, who often operate as hired enforcers for Assad's regime.
Shabiha thugs are known to frequently work closely with soldiers and security forces, but the regime never acknowledges their existence – allowing it to deny responsibility for their actions.
"What is very clear is this was an absolutely abominable event that took place in Houla, and at least a substantial part of it was summary executions of civilians, women and children," Rupert Colville, spokesman for the UN High commissioner for Human Rights, said.
"At this point, it looks like entire families were shot in their houses," he added grimly.
Videos posted online by dissidents show explosions in Houla, dismembered bodies lying in the streets, then row upon row of the dead laid out before being buried in a mass grave.
The Syrian regime denies any role in the massacre, blaming the killings on "armed terrorists" who attacked army positions in the area and slaughtered innocent civilians.
Damascus has provided no evidence to support its claims, or provided its own death toll. Such claims by Assad's regime are widely dismissed as propaganda both in Syria and abroad.
UN observers investigating the scene said they found tank and artillery shells in Houla after the attack, but stopped short of directly blaming regime forces for the killings.
Speaking to reporters in Geneva, Colville said information from UN observers and other sources indicated that many of the victims were killed in the Houla village of Taldaw in two separate incidents.
He said a fuller investigation was needed before he could comment on that, and called on Syria to allow unrestricted access to UN investigators.
In March, UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay went on record after a series of massacres in Syria saying there was more than enough evidence to hold Assad responsible for the killings – going so far as to say “There is no statute of limitations, so people like him can go on for a very long time but one day they will have to face justice.”
The brutality of the killings and the high death toll raised new questions about the ability of a UN-brokered plan to end the violence in Syria, which began in March 2011.
UN officials say at least 9,100 have been killed since Assad began his brutal crackdown in March 2011, but admit they stopped counting earlier this year due to the pervasive choas in Syria.
Local rights activists say at least 12,000 have been killed – most of them civilians. At least 1,000 have been killed since the April ceasefire deadline passed.