Aazaz, Syria (AFP) – The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation suspended Syria on Thursday, saying the Muslim world can no longer accept a government that “massacres its people”, further isolating the embattled regime.
The move by the world’s biggest Muslim grouping came after dozens of people, including women and children, were reported killed in an air strike on a rebel bastion in northern Syria, while a bomb attack and a firefight rocked Damascus.
UN investigators also said Syrian forces had committed crimes against humanity, including the Houla massacre in May that shocked the world, during an escalating conflict that has killed thousands and sent many more fleeing.
Violence continues to rage in many parts of the country, including the northern battleground of Aleppo, with bitterly divided world powers in deadlock over how to end a conflict that could threaten the entire region.
The UN Security Council meets Thursday to formally end its observer mission in Syria, as UN chief Ban Ki-moon struggles to persuade Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi to become the new international envoy on the conflict.
An emergency OIC summit in the Saudi holy city of Mecca said it had agreed to suspend Syria because of “deep concern at the massacres and inhuman acts suffered by the Syrian people”.
OIC chief Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said the decision sent “a strong message from the Muslim world to the Syrian regime” of President Bashar al-Assad.
“This world can no longer accept a regime that massacres its people using planes, tanks and heavy artillery.”
The United States and the opposition Syrian National Council welcomed the move.
“Today’s action underscores the Assad regime’s increasing international isolation and the widespread support for the Syrian people and their struggle for a democratic state that represents their aspirations and respects their human rights,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
A damning report by the UN Commission of Inquiry said government forces and their militia allies committed crimes against humanity including murder and torture, while the rebels had also carried out war crimes, but on a lesser scale.
“The commission found reasonable grounds to believe that government forces and the shabiha had committed the crimes against humanity of murder and of torture, war crimes and gross violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law,” the report released on Wednesday said.
It said they were responsible for the massacre in the central city of Houla in May when 108 civilians, including 49 children, were killed in a grisly attack that Assad himself had said was the work of “monsters”.
Rebel fighters were however not spared in the probe, which found them guilty of war crimes, including murder, extrajudicial execution and torture.
The conflict erupted in March last year when regime forces cracked down on peaceful protests but has spiralled into an armed rebellion that activists say has killed 23,000 people while the UN puts the death toll at 17,000.
Assad — who says he is fighting a foreign “terrorist plot” — has been hit by a wave of defections and a rebel bomb attack that took out four of his top security officials last month.
In the north of Syria, activists and residents reported another atrocity by the regime, with dozens killed in an air strike in Aazaz, a rebel bastion near the second city Aleppo.
— ‘These animals will kill us all’ —
“Bashar did this. God help us, these animals will kill us all,” said one man, hoisting a bloodied arm from a pile of body parts on the pavement outside the local hospital.
Dozens of residents fled for nearby Turkey, many of them entire families carrying boxes of clothing and food on their heads.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 31 people were killed, including women and children, and another 200 wounded, while Turkey, which took in many of the victims, said on Thursday that another 15 had died of their injuries.
Nationwide, at least 167 people were killed on Wednesday, the Observatory said.
UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos also warned that the situation in Syria was worsening, with the number of people in need possibly as high as 2.5 million.
And in a worrying development in neighbouring Lebanon, rioters blocked roads and dozens of Syrians were kidnapped and their shops vandalised in violence that triggered orders from Gulf nations for citizens to leave immediately.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar all issued warnings for their nationals to leave because of what the UAE foreign minister said was a “very dangerous” situation.
In New York, the Security Council meets Thursday to formally end its observer mission with entrenched divisions among the major powers meaning there is no hope of a renewal when its mandate ends at midnight Sunday.
Ban — who has branded the conflict a “proxy war” being played out by rival international players — has called for a “flexible” UN presence.
Human Rights Watch urged the Security Council to impose an arms embargo on Syria after the air strike on Aazaz.
“This horrific attack killed and wounded scores of civilians and destroyed a whole residential block,” said Anna Neistat, acting emergencies director at Human Rights Watch.
“Yet again, Syrian government forces attacked with callous disregard for civilian life.”
It said two rebel Free Syrian Army facilities in the vicinity of the Aazaz attack could might have been targets of the Syrian aircraft, but neither was damaged.
On Wednesday, the FSA claimed a bomb attack targeting a military headquarters near a hotel used by the UN observers, saying it was a warning that it could strike any time at the very heart of the regime.