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We fail as a species: 11-year-old played dead to survive Syria massacre

BEIRUT (AP) — When the gunmen began to slaughter his family, 11-year-old Ali el-Sayed says he fell to the floor of his home, soaking his clothes with his brother’s blood to fool the killers into thinking he was already dead.

The Syrian boy tried to stop himself from trembling, even as the gunmen, with long beards and shaved heads, killed his parents and all four of his siblings, one by one.

The youngest to die was Ali’s brother, 6-year-old Nader. His small body bore two bullet holes — one in his head, another in his back.

"I put my brother’s blood all over me and acted like I was dead," Ali told The Associated Press over Skype on Wednesday, his raspy voice steady and matter-of-fact, five days after the killing spree that left him both an orphan and an only child.

Ali is one of the few survivors of a weekend massacre in Houla, a collection of poor farming villages and olive groves in Syria’s central Homs province. More than 100 people were killed, many of them women and children who were shot or stabbed in their houses.

The killings brought immediate, worldwide condemnation of President Bashar Assad, who has unleashed a violent crackdown on an uprising that began in March 2011. Activists say as many as 13,000 people have been killed since the revolt began.

U.N. investigators and witnesses blame at least some of the Houla killings on shadowy gunmen known as shabiha who operate on behalf of Assad’s government.

Recruited from the ranks of Assad’s Alawite religious community, the militiamen enable the government to distance itself from direct responsibility for the execution-style killings, torture and revenge attacks that have become hallmarks of the shabiha.

In many ways, the shabiha are more terrifying than the army and security forces, whose tactics include shelling residential neighborhoods and firing on protesters. The swaggering gunmen are deployed specifically to brutalize and intimidate Assad’s opponents.

Activists who helped collect the dead in the aftermath of the Houla massacre described dismembered bodies in the streets, and row upon row of corpses shrouded in blankets.

"When we arrived on the scene we started seeing the scale of the massacre," said Ahmad al-Qassem, a 35-year-old activist. "I saw a kid with his brains spilling out, another child who was no more than 1 year old who was stabbed in the head. The smell of death was overpowering.”

The regime denies any responsibility for the Houla killings, blaming them on terrorists. And even if the shabiha are responsible for the killings, there is no clear evidence that the regime directly ordered the massacre in a country spiraling toward civil war.

As witness accounts begin to leak out, it remains to be seen what, exactly, prompted the massacre. Although the Syrian uprising has been among the deadliest of the Arab Spring, the killings in Houla stand out for their sheer brutality and ruthlessness.

According to the U.N., which is investigating the attack, most of the victims were shot at close range, as were Ali’s parents and siblings. The attackers appeared to be targeting the most vulnerable people, such as children and the elderly, to terrorize the population.

This type of massacre — even more than the shelling and mortar attacks that have become daily occurrences in the uprising — is a sign of a new level of violence. By most accounts, the gunmen descended on Houla from an arc of nearby villages, making the deaths all the more horrifying because the victims could have known their attackers.

According to activists in the area, the massacre came after the army pounded the villages with artillery and clashed with local rebels following anti-regime protests. Several demonstrators were killed, and the rebels were forced to withdraw. The pro-regime gunmen later stormed in, doing the bulk of the killing.

Syrian activist Maysara Hilaoui said he was at home when the massacre in Houla began. He said there were two waves of violence, one starting at 5 p.m. Friday and a second at 4 a.m. Saturday.

"The shabiha took advantage of the withdrawal of rebel fighters," he said. "They started entering homes and killing the young as well as the old."

Ali, the 11-year-old, said his mother began weeping the moment about 11 gunmen entered the family home in the middle of the night after arriving in a military armored vehicle and a bus. The men led Ali’s father and oldest brother outside.

"My mother started screaming ‘Why did you take them? Why did you take them?’" Ali said.

Soon afterward, he said, the gunmen killed Ali’s entire family.

As Ali huddled with his youngest siblings, a man in civilian clothes took Ali’s mother to the bedroom and shot her five times in the head and neck.

"Then he left the bedroom. He used his flashlight to see in front of him," Ali said. "When he saw my sister Rasha, he shot her in the head while she was in the hallway."

Ali had been hiding near his brothers Nader, 6, and Aden, 8. The gunmen shot both of them, killing them instantly. He then fired at Ali but missed.

"I was terrified," Ali said, speaking from Houla, where relatives have taken him in. “My whole body was trembling.”

Ali is among the few survivors of the massacre, although it was impossible to independently corroborate his story. The AP contacted him through anti-regime activists in Houla who arranged for an interview with the child over Skype.

The violence had haunting sectarian overtones, according to witness accounts. The victims lived in the Houla area’s Sunni Muslim villages, but the shabiha forces came from a nearby area populated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Most shabiha belong to the Alawite sect — like the Assad family and the ruling elite. This ensures the loyalty of the gunmen to the regime, because they fear they would be persecuted if the Sunni majority gains the upper hand.

Sunnis make up most of Syria’s 22 million people, as well as the backbone of the opposition. The opposition insists the movement is entirely secular.

It was not possible to reach residents of the Alawite villages on Wednesday. Communications with much of the area have been cut off, and many residents have fled.

Al-Qassem, the activist who helped gather corpses in Houla, said the uprising has unleashed deep tensions between Sunnis and Alawites.

"Of course the regime worked hard to create an atmosphere of fear among Alawites," said al-Qassem, who is from the Houla area, although not one of the villages that came under attack over the weekend. "There is a deep-seated hatred. The regime has given Alawites the illusion that the end of the regime will spell the end of their villages and lives."

He said the army has been pouring weapons into the Alawite areas.

"Every house in each of those Alawite villages has automatic rifles. The army has armed these villages, each home according to the number of people who live there," he said, "whereas in Houla, which has a population of 120,000, you can only find 500 0r 600 armed people. There is an imbalance."

Days after the attack, many victims remain missing.

Ali can describe the attack on his family. But al-Qassem said the full story of the massacre may never emerge.

"There are no eyewitnesses of the massacre," he said. "The eyewitnesses are all dead."

Syria blames rebels for Houla massacre

AMMAN (Reuters) - Facing mounting international outrage over the killing of at least 109 people in the restive town of Houla, Syria on Sunday accused rebels of carrying out the massacre, in which dozens of children were murdered.

Images of bloodied and lifeless young bodies, lain carefully side by side after the onslaught on Friday, triggered shock around the world and underlined the failure of a six-week-old U.N. ceasefire plan to stop the violence.

Syrian authorities blamed “terrorists” for the massacre, among the worst carnage in the 14-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, which has cost about 10,000 lives.

"Women, children and old men were shot dead. This is not the hallmark of the heroic Syrian army," Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdesi told reporters in Damascus.

Opposition activists said Assad's forces shelled Houla after a protest and then clashed with fighters from the Sunni Muslim-led insurgency.

Activists say Assad’s ‘shabbiha’ militia, loyal to an establishment dominated by members of the minority Alawite sect, then hacked dozens of the victims to death, or shot them.

Maysara al-Hilawi said he saw the bodies of six children and their parents in a ransacked house in the town.

"The Abdelrazzak family house was the first one I entered. The children’s corpses were piled on top of each other, either with their throats cut or shot at close range," Hilawi, an opposition activist, said by telephone from the area.

"I helped collect more than 100 bodies in the last two days, mostly women and children. The last were six members of the al-Kurdi family. A father and his five kids. The mother is missing," he said.

DAMASCUS PROTESTERS SHOT DEAD

Syrian forces shot dead two men on Sunday at a protest in Damascus against the killings in Houla, opposition activists said. The men’s funerals also turned into demonstrations.

Footage broadcast by activists in the Damascus suburb of Yalda showed a crowd of hundreds at one of the men’s funerals shouting “the people want the downfall of the regime”.

U.N. military and civilian observers counted 32 children under 10 years old among at least 92 dead in Houla on Saturday. More bodies have since been found, activists said.

The observers confirmed the use of artillery, which only Assad’s forces have, but did not say how all the victims died.

The U.N. and Arab League’s Syria envoy Kofi Annan and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon accused the Syrian government of using artillery in populated areas.

"This appalling and brutal crime involving indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force is a flagrant violation of international law and of the commitments of the Syrian Government to cease the use of heavy weapons in population centers and violence in all its forms," they said in a joint statement on Saturday.

Western countries and Arab states opposed to Assad put the blame for the deaths squarely on Damascus.

The Gulf Cooperation Council of Sunni-led monarchies accused Assad’s soldiers of using excessive force and urged the international community to “assume its responsibilities to halt the daily bloodshed in Syria”.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton spoke of a “heinous act perpetrated by the Syrian regime against its own civilian population” in a statement on Sunday. The head of the European parliament said it could amount to a war crime.

"RULE BY MURDER"

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

"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.

France said it would call a meeting of the Friends of Syria, a group of Western and Arab countries keen to see Assad removed.

Britain said it would summon Syria’s envoy over the massacre and that it would call for a meeting of the U.N. Security Council in coming days.

The United Arab Emirates requested an urgent meeting of the Arab League, whose head, Nabil Elaraby, urged the U.S. Security Council to stop the killing.

But there was no immediate official word from Russia, which along with China has vetoed Security Council resolutions calling for tougher action. Russia has previously blamed both the government and Syrian rebels for causing the violence.

Former U.N. secretary-general Annan is to brief the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday and is likely to be guided on who is responsible by reports from U.N. observers in Houla.

Although the ceasefire plan negotiated by Annan has failed to stop the violence, the United Nations is nearing full deployment of a 300-strong unarmed observer force meant to monitor a truce.

The plan calls for a truce, withdrawal of troops from cities and dialogue between government and opposition.

Syria calls the revolt a “terrorist” conspiracy run from abroad, a veiled reference to Sunni Muslim Gulf powers that want to see weapons provided to the insurgents.

The United Nations has accused Assad’s forces and insurgents alike of grave human rights abuses, including summary executions and torture.