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(New York) – Kofi Annan should push Syria’s government to allow the UN-appointed Commission of Inquiry access into the country to investigate the May 25, 2012, killing of at least 108 Houla residents, Human Rights Watch said today ahead of an impending visit by the UN envoy to Damascus. The Syrian government has so far refused entry to the UN-mandated commission. Human Rights Watch also reiterated its call to the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Following a May 26 visit to Houla, a region made up of several villages about 20 kilometers northwest of the restive city of Homs, UN monitors confirmed the killings and condemned the “brutal tragedy.” The head of the UN monitoring mission in Syria, Maj Gen Robert Mood, told the media that some of the dead had been killed by shelling and others shot at close range, but did not attribute responsibility for the close-range killing. According to survivors that Human Rights Watch interviewed and local activists, the Syrian army shelled the area on May 25, and armed men, dressed in military clothes, attacked homes on the outskirts of town and executed entire families.

All of the witnesses stated the armed men were pro-government, but they did not know whether they were members of the Syrian army or a pro-government militia, locally referred to as shabeeha. Houla’s towns, overwhelmingly Sunni, are surrounded by Alawite and Shia villages, and sectarian tensions have been high since last year. At a press conference on May 27, a spokesman for the Syrian Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Ministry categorically denied the army’s responsibility for the killings and announced that the government had formed a military judicial committee to conduct an investigation.

“There’s no way a Syrian military commission can credibly investigate this horrendous crime when so much evidence suggests pro-government forces were responsible,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Annan should insist that Syria grant access to the UN commission of inquiry to investigate this and other grave crimes.”

Residents and survivors described to Human Rights Watch how the attack on Houla unfolded. At midday on May 25 protesters gathered in Taldou, Houla’s largest town. According to a witness, at around 2 p.m., soldiers from an army checkpoint opened fire to disperse nearby protesters but he did not know whether anyone was injured or killed at that moment. An opposition activist from Houla told Human Rights Watch that armed members of the opposition subsequently attacked the checkpoint from which the army had fired, and that the Syrian army responded by intensely shelling various neighborhoods in Houla.

One resident of Taldou told Human Rights Watch:

At around 2:30 p.m., the army located on the outskirts of town started shelling the neighborhood. Initially, they used tanks, but after couple of hours they started using mortars. The shelling was coming from the direction of the Air Force military college located at the entrance of Houla. Around 7:00 p.m., the shelling intensified and whole buildings were shaking. The army started firing some sort of rockets that would shake an entire area.

At around 6:30 p.m., just as the shelling intensified on parts of Houla, armed gunmen wearing military uniforms attacked homes situated on the outskirts of town on the road leading to the Houla dam, three survivors of the attacks told Human Rights Watch. Most of those killed belonged to the Abdel Razzak family. Local activists provided Human Rights Watch with a list of 62 dead members from the Abdel Razzak family. According to survivors, their family owns the land and farms next to the national water company and the water dam of Taldou, and lives in eight or nine houses next to each other, two families to a house.

An elderly woman from the Abdel Razzak family who survived the attack told Human Rights Watch:

I was in the house with my three grandsons, three granddaughters, sister-in-law, daughter, daughter in-law and cousin. [On May 25] around 6:30 p.m., before sunset, we heard gunshots. I was in a room by myself when I heard the sound of a man. He was shouting and yelling at my family. I hid behind the door. I saw another man standing outside by the entrance door and another one inside the house. They were wearing military clothes. I couldn’t see their faces. I thought they wanted to search the house. They walked in the house; I didn’t hear them break in because we never lock the doors. After three minutes, I heard all my family members screaming and yelling. The children, all aged between 10 and 14, were crying. I went down on the floor and tried to crawl so I could see what was happening. As I approached the door, I heard several gunshots. I was so terrified I couldn’t stand on my legs. I heard the soldiers leaving. I looked outside the room and saw all of my family members shot. They were shot in their bodies and their head. I was terrified to approach to see if they were alive. I kept crawling until I reached the back door. I went outside, and I ran away. I was in shock so I don’t know what happened later.

A 10-year-old boy from the Abdel Razzak family told Human Rights Watch that he saw men wearing military clothes shoot his 13-year-old friend:

I was at home with my mother, my cousins, and my aunt. Suddenly I heard gunshots. It was the first time I heard so many gunshots. My mother grabbed me and took me to a barn to hide. I heard men screaming and shouting. I heard people crying especially women. I looked outside the window. I was peeking sometimes but I was afraid they would see me. Men wearing [uniforms] like army soldiers, green with other colors [camouflage] and white shoes, entered our house. They went outside after a couple of minutes. Then across the street I saw my friend Shafiq, 13 years old, outside standing alone. An armed man in military uniform grabbed him and put him at the corner of a house. He took his own weapon and shot him in the head. His mother and big sister – I think she was 14 years old – went outside and started shouting and crying. The same man shot at both of them more than once. Then the armed men left and the FSA soldiers came.

The boy’s mother confirmed many of the details to Human Rights Watch:

At around 6:30 – 7:00 p.m., we started hearing the sound of gunshots. They were very close to us. We ran and hid in the barn. After the armed men left, and I heard the sound of their cars driving away, my sister and I went outside. I saw Shafiq [the 13-year-old friend of her son] on the ground dead. I saw three families: three women, two of them with children. All of them were shot. Some were shot in the head and others had multiple shots in the body. One of the children survived. She is 14 years old. She was shot twice in the leg. I also saw my cousin who was shot in the chest. A 13-year-old boy who was paralyzed was shot three times in his chest as well.

“As long as gunmen can operate with impunity, the horrors in Syria will continue,” said Whitson. “Russia should stop shielding the Syrian government at the Security Council and agree to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court.”

Human Rights Watch also urged other countries to join the calls for accountability by supporting a referral to the ICC as the forum most capable of effectively investigating and prosecuting those bearing the greatest responsibility for abuses in Syria.

Previous announcements by Syria’s government that it would launch investigations have led to no visible results. On March 31, 2011, barely one month after the start of the uprising, the Syrian government established a judicial committee to “launch an immediate investigation into all fatalities or injuries sustained by civilians and military personnel and into all other related offences and to deal with complaints in that connection.” Aside from summary statements by President Bashar al-Assad that the work of the committee is ongoing and that some individuals have been arrested and are being investigated, little is known about its work and any results.

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