World leaders voiced fears on Friday that Syria stands on the brink of civil war but found little agreement on how to bring it back from the abyss, as 18 more people died in the relentless violence.
Talks in Berlin between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin exposed the sharp differences between Arab and Western governments and Damascus allies Beijing and Moscow on the way forward.
The two leaders found common ground on backing the peace mission of UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan but the former UN chief himself admitted to frustration at the slow progress he was making in staunching the bloodshed.
Security forces opened fire on demonstrators in several towns amid protests across the country against the killing last week of 108 people, most of them women and children, near the central town of Houla, activists said.
UN human rights chief Navi Pillay said the killings — which UN officials have said were the result of army shelling followed by a ground assault by loyalist militia — could constitute a “crime against humanity.”
An inquiry by the Syrian government blamed rebel fighters but Washington dismissed its finding as a “blatant lie.”
Russia seemed to back the Syrian version, with the foreign ministry saying the tragedy “showed what can be the outcome of financial aid and smuggling of modern weapons to rebels, recruitment of foreign mercenaries and flirting with various sorts of extremists.”
In Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council called for an independent probe into the massacre.
A resolution, opposed only by China, Cuba and Russia, requests the Commission of Inquiry to “urgently conduct a comprehensive, independent and unfettered special inquiry … and, if possible, to publicly identify those who appear responsible for these atrocities.”
Pillay had told the meeting that events in Syria should be referred to the International Criminal Court and also urged the international community to throw its weight behind Annan’s peace mission.
“Otherwise, the situation in Syria might descend into a full-fledged conflict and the future of the country, as well as the region as a whole could be in grave danger,” she said.
After his talks in Berlin, the Russian president acknowledged that Syria could be teetering on the edge of civil war but underlined his opposition to military intervention to stop the bloodshed.
“You cannot do anything by force,” Putin told reporters.
He also hit back at suggestions Moscow was supplying arms for use in Syria.
“As far as arms supplies are concerned, Russia does not supply the weapons that could be used in a civil conflict,” Putin said.
But US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton charged that Russia has continued to supply arms to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“We know there has been a very consistent arms trade, even during the past year, coming from Russia to Syria” and that this had strengthened the Assad regime, she said in Oslo.
“The fact that Russia has continued to sustain this trade in the face of efforts by the international community to impose sanctions … has raised serious concerns on our part,” she said.
Putin, on his first trip to the West since returning to the Kremlin for a third term, insisted his country was not siding with the regime against the opposition.
“We are supporting neither side from which the danger of civil war is coming,” he said.
Merkel said the two leaders had agreed on the importance of backing Annan’s peace mission.
“We both made clear that we are pushing for a political solution, that the Annan plan can be a starting point but that everything must be done in the United Nations Security Council to implement this plan,” she said.
But speaking in Syrian neighbour Lebanon, Annan spoke of his frustration at the slow progress in implementing his six-point peace plan that was supposed to begin with a ceasefire from April 12 but that has been violated daily.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says a full 2,287 of the more than 13,400 people killed since the uprising against Assad’s regime began in March last year have died since April 12.
“We are all impatient and frustrated over the violence, over the killings. I am frustrated even more maybe than most of you,” said Annan.
“Bold action has to be taken by President Assad in Syria to put real energy into the implementation of the six-point peace plan.”
But the rebel Free Syrian Army said the Annan plan had failed and announced that it will resume “defensive operations” after the expiry of a noon (0900 GMT) ultimatum for the regime to adhere to the plan.
FSA spokesman Kassem Saadeddine told AFP that “we will not go on the offensive because we do not want to be singled out as the ones responsible for breaking the peace initiative.”
“The Annan plan has failed,” he said. “The ball has been in the regime and international community’s court from the start, and the initiative was a failure from the day it was signed.”
Meanwhile, reports emerged of the summary execution of 12 civilians at an army checkpoint in another central town on Thursday.
“The workers were on a bus when they were forced to stop at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Qusayr,” said Salim Kabbani of the Local Coordination Committees, which organises protests on the ground.
“Regime forces tied their hands behind their backs and shot them.”
A mass funeral for the victims of the latest atrocity came amid protests across the country against the Houla killings, as the Observatory reported at least 18 people killed on Friday across the country.
China’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva Liu Zhenmin told the rights commission meeting that an immediate ceasefire was necessary, otherwise the situation could lead “perhaps even to civil war.”
And after talks with UN chief Ban Ki-Moon in Istanbul, British Foreign Secretary William Hague voiced similar concerns.
“Both the secretary general and I — and also the opposition in Syria — think that Syria is on the edge of a catastrophic situation … on the edge of an all-out civil war and the collapse of Syria into sectarian strife,” Hague told reporters.
[German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin give a press conference at the Chancellery in Berlin. AFP Photo/Dagmar Kielhorn]