By BASSEM MROUE, Associated Press
BEIRUT -- U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Syria on Thursday to stop its attacks, saying the U.N. observers monitoring the cease-fire were not there to watch the killing of innocent people. The warning came as activists reported that Syrian troops again shelled the country's central region of Houla where more than 100 people were massacred last week.
The latest shelling and sniper fire killed at least one person and made scores flee in fear of more government attacks.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees activist groups said government troops unleashed heavy machine guns but also used mortars Thursday in Houla, a collection of poor farming villages in the central Homs province. Both groups said a young man was killed by sniper fire.
Survivors of the Houla massacre have blamed pro-regime gunmen for at least some of carnage that began Friday and left 108 people dead, many of them children and women. The Syrian government denied its troops were behind the killings and blamed "armed terrorists."
Activists from Houla said government forces last Friday first shelled the area after large demonstrations against the regime earlier in the day. That evening, they said, pro-regime fighters known as shabiha stormed the villages, gunning down men in the streets and stabbing women and children in their homes.
The Houla massacre was one of the deadliest incidents since the uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime started in March last year. The U.N. said several weeks ago that more than 9,000 people have been killed in the past 15 months while activists put the number at about 13,000.
The Observatory reported that Houla residents were fleeing Thursday to nearby towns and villages "fearing a new massacre."
Speaking in Istanbul, Ban said that "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." He added that a united international community demands that the Syrian government act on its responsibilities to its people.
"We are there to record violations and to speak out so that the perpetrators of crimes may be held to account," Ban told a summit of the Alliance of Civilizations, a forum promoting understanding between the Western and Islamic worlds.
"The more the international community knows," Ban said, "the more likely it is that we can advance on our most important goal: to help find a political solution, a solution that safeguards the lives and interests of all the Syrian people."
"Let me state plainly, however: The U.N. did not deploy in Syria just to bear witness to the slaughter of innocents," he said. "We are not there to play the role of passive observer to unspeakable atrocities."
Nearly 300 U.N. observers have been deployed around Syria to monitor a cease fire that went into effect on April 12, as part of a peace plan negotiated by international envoy Kofi Annan. Despite the cease fire, violence continued almost daily.
In the wake of last week's massacre, the United States, Western and Asian nations expelled Syrian diplomats in protest.
In Denmark, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday that every day of slaughter in Syria is strengthening the case for tougher international action. However, she stressed that military intervention would need international support, including from Syrian ally Russia.
Speaking to Danish university students, Clinton noted that U.N. and international backing made possible last year's international coalition against Moammar Gadhafi in Libya but that Russia and China are standing in the way of similar action in Syria. She also suggested that a military effort against Assad's regime would be far more difficult.
Asked when the U.S. might opt for a military option, Clinton said, "Every day that goes by makes the argument for it stronger," even if Moscow in particular remained unconvinced. She said Washington would continue pressing its case to Russia, which has promised to block any moves at the United Nations to obtain a military mandate for intervention.
Meanwhile, a group of army defectors known as the Free Syrian Army warned the Syrian government on Thursday that if it does not abide by Annan's plan by ceasing fire and pulling out troops from residential areas by Friday noon, the group will defend the people.
"After that, the Free Syrian Army will not abide by the Annan plan ... and will defend the civilians," said Col. Qassim Salaheddine in a statement posted on YouTube. Salaheddine identified himself as the FSA commander in Homs province.
Although the FSA claims that it has so far been abiding by Annan's plan, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said gunmen have violated the cease-fire more than 3,500 times. There have been clashes over the past weeks between troops and army defectors in different areas around Syria.
Also Thursday, Syria's state-run TV said 500 people who had gotten involved in recent events in Syria were released from detention. It gave no further details.
In Damascus, the Syria International Islamic Bank, or SIIB, criticized the latest sanctions imposed Wednesday by the Obama administration as "irrational and unjustified."
The Treasury Department said Wednesday that SIIB has been acting as a front for other Syrian financial institutions seeking to circumvent sanctions. The new penalties will prohibit the bank from engaging in financial transactions in the U.S. and will freeze any assets under U.S. jurisdiction.
SIIB said it would undertake all necessary measures toward the U.S. decision, saying it has no assets or accounts in the United States. It added that the bank, like other Syrian banks, halted all banking operations with the dollar since U.S. sanctions were first imposed on Syria.
With Washington unwilling at this point to pursue military options in Syria, the U.S. has relied heavily on economic sanctions as a means for pressing Assad to leave power. The United States will host other nations in Washington next week to look at ways to tighten international sanctions further.
World powers share a belief that Syria could descend into civil war and plan to map out possible ways to avoid such a disaster for the region, a deputy for Annan said Wednesday. Jean-Marie Guehenno told reporters after privately briefing the U.N. Security Council, the world body's most powerful unit, that diplomats are deeply troubled by Syria's cycle of violence.
Earlier Wednesday, Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani warned the West about military intervention in Syria along the lines of NATO's campaign that helped ouster Moammar Gadhafi after the alliance backed the rebel movement in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
"Creating another Benghazi in Syria will impact Palestine and the ashes of this fire will cover the Zionist regime, definitely," he said using the phrase commonly used by Iranian officials to refer to Israel.
Associated Press writer Albert Aji contributed to this report from Damascus, Syria.