U.S. says fears 'potential massacre' in Syria's Haffeh

WASHINGTON Mon Jun 11, 2012 2:58pm EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Syrian government appears to be planning a massacre in the opposition stronghold of Haffeh, the U.S. State Department said on Monday, and it warned that Syria's army will be held to account for killings.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Washington shared the alarm of international mediator Kofi Annan, who described reports of mortar bombs, helicopters and tanks being used in Haffeh, near the coast, as well as government shelling of the opposition stronghold of Homs.

"We are calling this out now in the hope that we can stop what could be a potential massacre," Nuland said, citing reports from U.N. monitors on the ground in Syria.

Nuland said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces were using "horrific tactics" including firing on civilians from airborne helicopters and deploying plainclothes "shabbiha" militia which the opposition has accused of slaughtering civilians in earlier attacks in the villages of Houla and Mazraat al-Qubeir.

"This constitutes a very serious escalation," Nuland said.

"And we remind Syrian commanders of one of the lessons from Bosnia: The international community can and does learn what units were responsible for crimes against humanity and you will be held responsible for your actions."

NO NEW IDEAS

Despite the warning of imminent violence, Nuland made clear the United States had little new to suggest to end Syria's 15-month long crisis, which has seen the United Nations Security Council deadlocked amid continued support for Assad by veto-holding Russia and China.

Nuland said Washington would continue to support the U.N. monitoring mission, deployed under a peace plan put forward by Annan but ignored by both sides, but dismissed growing calls by activist groups and some U.S. allies in the region for potential military intervention.

"Among the things that we are continuing to talk about is working with those countries that are still supporting the Assad regime, including supporting him militarily, to stop doing that," Nuland said.

She said the United States would continue to consult with its allies on the possibility of seeking a "Chapter 7" mandate from the U.N. Security Council which could authorize actions ranging from sanctions to armed intervention.

But she made clear that - with Russia and China firmly opposed - there was little appetite for a military solution, which she said could transform Syria's civil conflict into a proxy war.

"The better course of action here is to use all of the economic, political, other pressure we can use to peel off from Assad those people who are still obeying his orders," Nuland said.

(Reporting By Andrew Quinn and Paul Eckert; Editing by Sandra Maler and Cynthia Osterman)

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