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US expels Syria diplomat after UN finds Houla victims were 'executed'

The United States and other nations expelled Syrian Charge d'Affaires Zuheir Jabbour. After 14 months of violence, the country is approaching an all-out civil war. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

Updated at 1:05 p.m. ET: The United States and a string of other nations expelled Syrian diplomats Tuesday, in response to a United Nations announcement that most of the 108 victims of violence near the Syrian town of Houla had been executed.

The State Department said it had decided to expel Charge d'Affaires Zuheir Jabbour from the U.S., an action mirrored by Australia, Canada, Spain, the United Kingdom, Italy, France and Germany. The Syrian ambassador had previously been recalled, leaving the charge d’affaires the highest ranking official in Washington, D.C.


Images of bloodied, young bodies laid out in a shallow grave after Friday's onslaught triggered shock around the world and underlined the failure of a six-week-old U.N. cease-fire plan to stop the violence.

 

 

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights earlier said its monitors found that fewer than 20 of the victims died from artillery fire. It was first thought the majority of the deaths were caused by artillery fire.

Syrian authorities had blamed "terrorists" for the massacre, which is one of the worst carnages in the 14-month-old uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that has cost about 10,000 lives.

Clinton condemns Syria massacre: Assad's 'rule by murder' must end

The United States rejected Syria's claims that terrorists were responsible for the massacre.

"We hold the Syrian government responsible for this slaughter of innocent lives," a spokesman for State Department told NBC News in a statement. "We encourage all countries to condemn the actions of the Assad regime through similar action."

The U.S. did not cut off relations with Syria altogether, and did not oppose "many civil service members of the Syrian government who are working to improve their country," the statement added.

"Our view is that these are civil servants; these are technical staff; these are the same people who, if and when -- and there will come a when -- the Assad regime goes and we're into a transition that they will have to restart the relationship," Victoria Nuland, spokesperson for the State Department, said.

"We are not opposed to the low- and mid-level technical staff remaining.”

A Syrian governmental crackdown is escalating prompting UN peace broker Kofi Annan to speak out and longtime Syrian ally Russia to criticize the regime. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

'Summarily executed' 
Rupert Colville, spokesman for the UNHCR, told journalists in Geneva that initial investigations suggest fewer than 20 of the victims in the village of Taldou, near Houla, were killed by artillery or tank fire.

"Most of the rest of the victims in Taldou," he told the BBC, "were summarily executed in two separate incidents."

Most of the victims were shot at close range. "At this point it looks like entire families were shot in their houses," Colville was quoted as saying by The Telegraph.

He said the conclusions of the U.N. monitors are corroborated by other sources, and that witnesses blamed pro-government militias for the attacks.

The findings came as UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan was meeting Assad in Damascus on Tuesday.

UN Security Council condemns Syria massacre that left more than 100 dead

The U.N. Security Council on Sunday unanimously condemned the Syrian government for heavy-weapons attacks on Houla.

"The Security Council condemned in the strongest possible terms the killings, confirmed by United Nations observers, of dozens of men, women and children and the wounding of hundreds more in the village of (Houla), near Homs, in attacks that involved a series of government artillery and tank shellings on a residential neighborhood," a non-binding statement said.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded that those who carried out the killings be held accountable.

"The United States will work with the international community to intensify our pressure on Assad and his cronies, whose rule by murder and fear must come to an end," she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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