Two UN observers arrived in the central Syrian town of Houla early on Saturday to inspect the aftermath of an 18-hour regime assault, which activists claim has left close to 100 people dead.
Residents had sent a series of urgent pleas for assistance from midday on Friday as Syrian military positions which had encircled the town for months launched a full-scale assault using heavy weapons and tanks. Activists and rights groups inside Syria claimed that at least 33 of the dead are children.
Videos uploaded to the internet and purported to be from Houla show many dead and mangled infants. Residents say some victims were killed with knives, while many more died from relentless shelling at that left buildings splintered and homes destroyed in a large residential area near the centre of town.
In recent days, violence has spiked across restive parts of Syria to levels not seen in many weeks. Friday has repeatedly been marked by a rise in violence as demonstrators use the cover of prayer gatherings to launch large anti-regime protests. However, a mass killing of this scale has not been reported for several months. The toll, if accurate, is the biggest in a single event since UN monitors arrived in April on a much-maligned mission to supervise a peace plan.
The plan, sponsored by the UN special envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, has been in tatters since the outset, with violence showing no signs of abating and neither regime troops nor the opposition Free Syria Army abiding by its terms.
Annan is due back in Damascus imminently to discuss the crisis with key officials. UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has warned that there is no plan B for the situation, which poses an increasingly grave risk to regional security.
Despite the chaos, UN monitors have moved widely around the country and witnessed shootings or explosions almost everywhere they have visited. In some instances, UN convoys have been targeted.
The regime has touted such attacks as evidence of al-Qaida at work, while the Free Syria Army has vehemently insisted that the regime itself has been concocting the attacks in a bid to reinforce its narrative.
“Everywhere [the UN monitors] go,” something happens to them,” Moustafa Abdul Salam told the Observer the northern Syrian village of Sarji. “They want to terrorise them into submission and make them doubt their own instincts. Already you have the Americans saying that al-Qaida might be at work here, so that means the regime are winning. And when they feel that way they will behave even more like savages.”
Yesterday’s UN visit to Houla seemed to be going to script. Monitors, who arrived around midday, were slow to engage with locals angrily remonstrating at a distance. UN officials also tried to visit Qusair south of Homs. Residents angrily claimed they had turned back for Damascus after gunfire erupted.
“This is the third time they have come here and fled,” said one man contacted by Skype. “We know what happens to us if we can ever speak to one of them and they fear that the regime will attack them too.”
The uprising, now into its fifteenth month, has led to a steady unwinding of stability in the iron-clad police state coupled with a sharp rise in violence, especially since opposition groups took up arms in large numbers last August.
The Free Syria Army, the main opposition group, now controls pockets of the country and, though severely underequipped, has the capacity to launch hit and run attacks against regime forces.
Opposition fighters claimed to have launched reprisal attacks in four areas of the country in the wake of the Houla attack. However they complain that the severing of their supply lines to Lebanon will sharply limit their ability to hold on to the ground they now control.
Lebanon, which has been under the tutelage of Syria for much of the past 35 years, has seen an increase in sectarian tension in the past week, which is being directly linked to the crisis shaking its larger neighbour.
Last Sunday Sunni sheikh Ahmed Abdul Wahid, a key supporter of the Syrian opposition, was killed by a Lebanese soldier at a checkpoint, leading to clashes in mixed areas of Beirut.
Events took a new twist on Wednesday when Lebanese soldiers in the heart of west Beirut were involved in a shoot-out with what officials described as a terrorist cell which it said had been trying to draw a pro-Syrian political headquarters located nearby into a firefight.
Two of the men killed in the seven-hour gun battle were identified as Islamic extremists who had been freed from a Lebanese jail in November. Syria also freed a large number of alleged militant Islamists from its key security prison around the same time.
“Things are never as they seem here,” said a senior Lebanese member of parliament. “Al-Qaida in Beirut very much fits the storyline for Syria itself and the pro-Syrian parties in Lebanon. If the Assad regime let these people out of prison, they must have had a use for them — even an unwitting one.
“I don’t doubt these were men who thought they were on a jihad. But the question is who sent them and did they really know who their masters were?”