Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Syria Leader Blames outside Terrorists for Massacre

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Syria Leader Blames outside Terrorists for Massacre

Article excerpt

BEIRUT -- President Bashar Assad denied Sunday that the Syrian government played a role in the massacre in the village of Houla, using his first speech in five months to reiterate his line that the violence in Syria was fomented by foreign instigators.

Addressing a Parliament just selected under a new constitution, Mr. Assad told parliamentarians that their election was "a slap" against those questioning reform in Syria, that the problems the country faced were rooted in terrorism rather than any lack of political reform, and that a dialogue with the opposition remained possible.

Mr. Assad, speaking for about an hour before Parliament, described himself as horrified by the Houla massacre, saying that "even monsters couldn't perpetrate what we have seen." "Our hearts bled and our anger was indescribable when we saw the painful scenes on television," the president said. "The Arabic language and human language cannot describe the scenes we witnessed at Houla."

He noted that government forces had initially been accused of causing the deaths by artillery shelling, but that claim was later revised. The president lumped together the killings at Houla with what he called the general assault that Syria had faced for 15 months.

The May 25 attack at Houla left 108 people dead, 49 of them children. Most were shot at close range or stabbed. Villagers said their assailants were shabiha, or armed militiamen controlled by the government, who came from a string of nearby Alawite villages, the same minority sect as the president.

While stopping short of blaming Syria directly, the United Nations found indications that the shabiha had carried out the attack and the Security Council criticized the Syrian government for using heavy artillery against civilian areas.

Activists were dismissive of Mr. Assad's speech, both for his denying any military role in the deaths at Houla and his comments that the Syrian military was defending the country against foreign powers.

"We have eyewitnesses from the massacre, and they know who did it. …

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