Opposition says Syrian regime militias execute en masse — again

Three people were reported killed in a security operation in Homs province

By the CNN Wire Staff

(CNN) – A week after a ghastly massacre left 108 people dead in one town, a dozen factory workers were hauled off a bus and executed by pro-regime militias, opposition activists said Friday.

The 12 workers were executed Thursday by Shabiha –or pro-government gangs — in Bouayda village, outside the Homs province city of Qusair, the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. They were lined up against a wall and shot, the group said.

Video posted by opposition activists showed bodies purportedly from the attack. A narrator said bullets holes could be seen in the wall. CNN could not independently verify the authenticity of the video.

The latest gruesome report comes days after 13 people were discovered bound and slain in another turbulent swath of Syria. U.N. observers said those bodies were found about 30 miles east of Deir Ezzor, in the eastern part of the country, on Tuesday night.

While reports of terror escalate, defiant protesters are expected to brave the streets of Syria on Friday in what is billed as “a merchants’ strike to stop massacring children.”

And the U.N. Human Rights Council will convene in a special session Friday to discuss the “deteriorating human rights situation in Syria.”

Despite cries near and far for an end to the bloodshed, there was no break in the violence Friday. The devastated town of Houla reportedly came under shelling by regime forces once again, the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria said.

Throughout Syria’s nearly 15-month crisis, demonstrators have taken to the streets to express outrage at the regime and its crackdown on dissidents — despite the fear of attack at such protests.

This week’s theme highlights the success of a nationwide general strike by merchants disgusted with the May 25 slaughter in Houla, said the opposition Syrian Revolution Coordinators’ Union.

Analysts say a revolt by Syria’s merchant class — which has been part of President Bashar al-Assad’s support structure — could elevate the uprising.

The massacre in Houla last week, which left at least 49 children dead, set off a diplomatic firestorm and calls for action against al-Assad’s regime.

But on Thursday, Syria attributed the carnage to “armed terrorist groups,” the vague entities that the regime has blamed all along for widespread violence against civilians.

“The goal of the armed operation was to completely terminate the presence of the state in the area and to make it one that is out of the control of the state,” Qasim Jamal Sleiman, head of a government investigative panel, said in televised remarks.

According to the regime, 600 to 800 armed people gathered after Friday prayers last week committed the crimes. Sleiman said guns fired from close by were used, but there was no shelling — contrary to what opposition activists have said.

But the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, called the Syrian account “another blatant lie” and said there’s no evidence to “substantiate that rendition of events.” She said the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva could soon embark on an effort to establish facts in the case and hold people accountable.

U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay called on the Syrian government Friday to allow a commission of inquiry “full and unimpeded access to the country to carry out investigations into all human rights violations,” including the Houla massacre.

“We must make all efforts to end impunity, to ensure accountability for perpetrators, and to provide adequate and effective remedies for the victims,” Pillay said Friday.

“Once again, I urge the (U.N.) Security Council to consider referring the case of Syria to the International Criminal Court.”

The LCC said “armed militias” of the Syrian government caused the bloodbath in Houla.

“This barbaric act was preceded by the regime’s mortar shelling in the town,” the LCC said in a statement. “The campaign ended when the armed militias slaughtered entire families in cold blood.”

Survivors corroborated that account to Human Rights Watch, saying the army shelled the area and “armed men, dressed in military clothes, attacked homes on the outskirts of town and executed entire families.”

Sectarian tensions have been high in Houla, which is overwhelmingly Sunni and is surrounded by Alawite and Shiite villages. The al-Assad regime is dominated by Alawites.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon referenced the Houla incident Thursday in Istanbul, Turkey, saying “the massacre of civilians of the sort seen last weekend could plunge Syria into a catastrophic civil war — a civil war from which the country would never recover.”

Already, the Syrian crisis has left at least 9,000 people dead, according to the United Nations. Other estimates range to more than 14,000.

For months, international leaders expressed cautious hope that a peace plan laid out by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan would help stymie the violence.

But on Thursday, at least 61 people were killed in the country, the LCC said. Syrian forces shelled Houla early in the day, and 29 people were killed in the besieged area of Homs, the group said.

Though reports of deaths mount daily, British U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said he was not prepared to pull the plug on the Annan peace plan.

“Clearly, it is on life support, but it isn’t dead, yet,” he told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Thursday.

“We are directing all our efforts into trying to make it work,” he said. “But I think to make it work, we’re going to need to increase the international pressure on the Syrian regime.”

Grant praised the role U.N. observers in Syria played in bringing the Houla massacre to light.

“To be honest, we would not know exactly what had happened in Houla had it not been for the observers able to go there, to demonstrate that there had been tank tracks, that there had been use of heavy artillery, that there had been a massacre by the Syrian regime,” he said.

“Otherwise, people would give some credence to this report that the Syrian government has come out with today claiming that it was nothing to do with them. We know that’s a tissue of lies partly because the U.N. observers are able to say so.”

Russia and China are the only two countries on the U.N. Security Council that have blocked tougher actions against the al-Assad regime.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said this week that “certain countries” were attempting to use the Houla massacre as a “pretext” for a military operation against al-Assad’s forces, which have been partly armed by Russia, Russia’s RIA Novosti reported.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, however, said the international community needs to ensure al-Assad steps down.

“There is no question that we are very concerned about the atrocities that are taking place in Syria,” he said. “Just makes clear how important it is to remove Assad from power and to try to implement the necessary political reforms that are necessary in that country.”

CNN cannot confirm death tolls or reports of violence from Syria because the government limits access to the country by foreign journalists.

CNN’s Amir Ahmed, Ivan Watson, Holly Yan and Michael Holmes contributed to this report.

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