By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
AMMAN, May 28 (Reuters) - Peace envoy Kofi Annan condemned the killing of at least 108 people in the Syrian town of Houla as "an appalling crime" on Monday and urged President Bashar al-Assad to prove he wants a peaceful resolution to the crisis racking his country.
Assad's forces killed at least 41 people in an artillery assault on the city of Hama, activists said, shortly after the U.N. Security Council condemned the massacre in nearby Houla which took place on Friday.
With international criticism growing of Assad's methods in trying to crush a 14-month-old uprising, now accompanied by a lightly armed insurgency, U.N./Arab League envoy Annan arrived in Damascus for talks on his faltering peace plan.
He explicitly urged the Syrian government to "take bold steps to signal that it is serious in its intention to resolve this crisis peacefully" before adding: "This message of peace is not only for the government, but for everyone with a gun."
Russia and China, which had previously vetoed resolutions condemning Assad, both approved a non-binding text in New York that criticised the use of artillery and tank shells on homes in Houla, but declined to blame the government alone. The rebels do not have artillery and tanks.
China also used strong words about the killings.
"China feels deeply shocked by the large number of civilian casualties in Houla, and condemns in the strongest terms the cruel killings of ordinary citizens, especially women and children," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said.
U.N. monitors say at least 108 people were killed, among them dozens of children. Many of the victims were also hacked to death or shot at close range, as shown in graphic images distributed by activists.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council that these killings could have been the work of rebels or government forces who moved in after the bombardment.
"We are dealing with a situation in which both sides evidently had a hand in the deaths of innocent people," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a news conference with visiting British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
Both Russia and China have resisted joining Western and Arab League sanctions against Assad. Both reaffirmed on Monday that Annan's plan, accepted by both sides in the conflict, was the only way forward.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said support for the plan, and a peaceful resolution, should be stepped up.
The plan calls for heavy weapons to be pulled out of towns and cities, followed by an end to fighting, and dialogue.
But the renewed assault on Hama, a centre of resistance already devastated by Assad's artillery this year, was a reminder that the agreement, policed by just 300 monitors, has done little to stem the violence.
"The six-point plan has to be implemented comprehensively, and this is not happening," Annan said.
Opposition sources said Syrian tanks and armoured vehicles opened fire on several neighbourhoods of Hama on Sunday after attacks by rebel Free Syrian Army fighters on roadblocks and other positions manned by Assad's forces.
The dead in the course of 24 hours included five women and eight children, the Hama Revolution Leadership Council said in a statement. "Tank shelling brought down several buildings. Their inhabitants were pulled out from the rubble."
The report could not be independently verified.
Russia suggested that the violence in Houla, in particular, had been intended to sabotage the visit by Annan, who was to meet Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem on Monday and Assad on Tuesday.
"We don't believe the Syrian government would be interested in spoiling the visit ... by doing something like that," Russian Deputy U.N. Ambassador Alexander Pankin said in New York.
A video distributed by activists showed an injured woman, who said she had survived the massacre, blaming members of Assad's shabbiha militia for the carnage.
"They entered our homes ... men wearing fatigues herding us like sheep in the room and started spraying bullets at us," the woman said. "My father died and my brother, my mother's only son. Seven sisters were killed," the woman said lying next to another injured woman and near a baby with a chest wound.
"TSUNAMI OF LIES"
Syrian U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari reiterated his government's denial, saying the massacre was the work of "armed terrorist groups" - the Syrian government's term for the rebels.
He dismissed a "tsunami of lies" from the British, French and German envoys, who blamed the government for the massacre, among the worst carnage in an uprising that has cost more than 10,000 lives.
Russia has accused the United States and Europe of pursuing Libya-style regime change in Syria, and is wary of endorsing any measures that could become a prelude to armed intervention.
Media reports have suggested that Washington is trying to enlist Russia's support for a plan of the kind that brought about a handover from Yemen's leader of three decades, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to an administration led by his own vice-president.
Russia has leverage over Syria through its Security Council veto and arms supply contracts, but does not wield the kind of influence that Saudi Arabia had over Saleh as his main financier.
Russia also has a strong interest in keeping its Syrian naval base at Tartous, and may still see Assad's survival as the best guarantee of this.
At his news conference with Hague, Lavrov criticised those who argued that there could be no solution to Syria's crisis while Assad remained in power.
Washington has explicitly said Assad must step down, and General Jack Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN television:
"Of course we always have to provide military options and they should be considered."
But he stressed that the international community should use economic and diplomatic measures first to try to push Assad to "make the right decision".
He said: "The events in Syria over the weekend are just horrific, atrocious really,"
(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau in New York, Doina Chiacu in Washington, Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman, Dominic Evans in Beirut, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Kevin Liffey)
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