Thirteen bound corpses, many apparently shot execution-style, have been discovered in eastern Syria, days after the massacre of more than 100 people provoked international outrage.
The latest killings happened in Deir el-Zour province, where the bodies were found blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs.
A statement by the UN mission said some appeared to have been shot in the head at close range.
A video posted online by activists showed the men lying face down, pools of dried blood under their heads.
The head of the UN observer team, Major General Robert Mood, said he was “deeply disturbed by this appalling and inexcusable act”.
The fresh killings underline violence that seems to be spiralling out of control as the uprising against President Bashar Assad that began in March 2011 has morphed into an armed insurgency. Activists say as many as 13,000 people have been killed since the revolt began.
In the wake of last weekend’s massacre in Houla, in which nearly half of the 108 dead were children, the United States and Western nations expelled Syrian diplomats in protest – a move Syria’s state-run media denounced today as “unprecedented hysteria”.
The massacre drew continued harsh criticism even from Syria’s closest ally Iran, with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad saying that anyone responsible for the killings should be punished. “I’m not excluding anyone from this responsibility,” Ahmadinejad told France 24 TV station.
UN investigators and survivors have blamed pro-regime gunmen for at least some of the carnage in Houla, a collection of poor farming villages in central Homs province, saying men in civilian clothes gunned down people in the streets and stabbed women and children in their homes. The Syrian government denied its troops were behind the killings and blamed “armed terrorists”.
Damascus had said it would conclude its own investigation into the Houla deaths by today but it was not clear if the findings would be made public. The UN’s top human rights body planned to hold a special session on Friday to address the massacre.
Meanwhile, violence continued unabated. Syrian forces bombarded rebel-held areas and clashed with army defectors in Homs province, killing at least eight people, activists said.
The United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Bulgaria ordered top Syrian diplomats to leave on Tuesday.
Today, Turkey, Syria’s neighbour and a former close ally, joined the coordinated diplomatic action, saying it ordered the Syrian charge d’affaires and other diplomats at the Syrian Embassy in Ankara to leave the country within 72 hours.
Japan also ordered the Syrian ambassador in Tokyo to leave the country.
The Obama administration added new sanctions on a Syrian bank as a top White House official said the US wants to economically throttle Assad’s regime and cut off salaries of pro-government thugs blamed for the grisly massacre in Houla.
The US Treasury Department said the Syria International Islamic Bank 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 transactions in the US and will freeze any assets under US jurisdiction.
“We are strangling the regime economically,” White House deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough said.
The international community has been grappling with ways to quell the deadly violence and spur a political transition. The US and Western countries are loathe to use military intervention similar to last year’s campaign in Libya to remove Muammar Gaddafi, fearing a backlash.
The White House said this week that such an assault risks leading to “greater chaos, greater carnage”.
But for now, Syria can still count on the support of its allies China and Russia, which criticised the diplomatic moves.
“The banishment of Syrian ambassadors from the capitals of leading Western states seems to us to be a counterproductive step,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said. He said the move closes “important channels” to influence Syria.
UN special envoy Kofi Annan met with Assad yesterday to try to salvage what was left of his peace plan, which since being brokered six weeks ago has failed to stop any of the violence on the ground.
Tensions have escalated as more information emerges about the May 25 killings in Houla.
The UN’s human rights office said most of the victims were shot execution-style at close range, with fewer than 20 people cut down by regime shelling.
The UN Security Council met behind closed doors today to hear briefings from Annan’s deputy Jean-Marie Guehenno and UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous.
US Ambassador Susan Rice warned that a failure of Annan’s peace plan could create a spreading conflict that creates “a major crisis” not only in Syria but also region-wide.
“And members of this council and members of the international community are left with the option only of considering whether they are prepared to take actions outside of the Annan plan and the authority of this council,” she told reporters.