AMMAN - Peace envoy Kofi Annan condemned the killing of at least 108 people in the Syrian town of Houla as "an appalling crime" on Monday and urged President Bashar al-Assad to prove he wants a peaceful resolution to the crisis racking his country.
Assad's forces killed at least 41 people in an artillery assault on the city of Hama, activists said, shortly after the U.N. Security Council condemned the massacre in nearby Houla which took place on Friday.
With international criticism growing of Assad's methods in trying to crush a 14-month-old uprising, now accompanied by a lightly armed insurgency, U.N./Arab League envoy Annan arrived in Damascus for talks on his faltering peace plan.
He explicitly urged the Syrian government to "take bold steps to signal that it is serious in its intention to resolve this crisis peacefully" before adding: "This message of peace is not only for the government, but for everyone with a gun."
Russia and China, which had previously vetoed resolutions condemning Assad, both approved a non-binding text in New York that criticised the use of artillery and tank shells on homes in Houla, but declined to blame the government alone. The rebels do not have artillery and tanks.
China also used strong words about the killings.
"China feels deeply shocked by the large number of civilian casualties in Houla, and condemns in the strongest terms the cruel killings of ordinary citizens, especially women and children," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said.
U.N. monitors say at least 108 people were killed, among them dozens of children. Many of the victims were also hacked to death or shot at close range, as shown in graphic images distributed by activists.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council that these killings could have been the work of rebels or government forces who moved in after the bombardment.
"We are dealing with a situation in which both sides evidently had a hand in the deaths of innocent people," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a news conference with visiting British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
Both Russia and China have resisted joining Western and Arab League sanctions against Assad. Both reaffirmed on Monday that Annan's plan, accepted by both sides in the conflict, was the only way forward.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said support for the plan, and a peaceful resolution, should be stepped up.
The plan calls for heavy weapons to be pulled out of towns and cities, followed by an end to fighting, and dialogue.
But the renewed assault on Hama, a centre of resistance already devastated by Assad's artillery this year, was a reminder that the agreement, policed by just 300 monitors, has done little to stem the violence.
"The six-point plan has to be implemented comprehensively, and this is not happening," Annan said.
Opposition sources said Syrian tanks and armoured vehicles opened fire on several neighbourhoods of Hama on Sunday after attacks by rebel Free Syrian Army fighters on roadblocks and other positions manned by Assad's forces.