Thirteen bound corpses, many apparently shot execution-style, have been found in eastern Syria, U.N. observers said Wednesday, days after the massacre of more than 100 people provoked international outrage and the coordinated expulsion of Syrian diplomats from world capitals.
The latest killings occurred in Deir el-Zour province, where the bodies were found late Tuesday blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs. The U.N. mission said that some appeared to have been shot in the head at close range.
The head of the U.N. observer team, Norwegian Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, said he was "deeply disturbed by this appalling and inexcusable act."
The fresh killings underline violence that seems to be spiraling out of control as the uprising against President Bashar Assad that began in March 2011 has morphed into an armed insurgency. Activists say that as many as 13,000 people have been killed since the revolt began.
In the wake of last Friday's massacre in Houla, in which nearly half of the 108 dead were children, the United States and eight other nations expelled Syrian diplomats in protest -- a move Syria's state-run media denounced Wednesday as "unprecedented hysteria."
Wednesday, Japan and Turkey, Syria's neighbor and a former close ally, joined the coordinated diplomatic action.
The massacre also drew criticism from Syria's closest ally Iran, with 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.
U.N. investigators and survivors have blamed pro-regime gunmen for some carnage in Houla 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 regime denied its troops were behind the killings and blamed "armed terrorists."
Damascus had said that it would conclude its own investigation into the Houla deaths by Wednesday, but it was not clear if the findings would be made public. The United Nations' top human rights body planned to hold a special session Friday to address the massacre.
The Obama administration added new sanctions on a Syrian bank Wednesday as a White House official said the United States wants to economically throttle Assad's regime and cut off salaries of pro-government thugs blamed for the massacre.
The U.S. 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 United States and will freeze any assets under U.S. jurisdiction. "We are strangling the regime economically," White House deputy national security adviser Denis R. McDonough said.
Syria can still count on the support of its allies China and Russia, which Wednesday criticized 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.
U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan met with Assad on Tuesday in Damascus to try to salvage what was left of his peace plan, which has failed to stop any of the violence on the ground.
The U.N. Security Council met behind closed doors Wednesday to hear briefings from Annan's deputy, Jean-Marie Guehenno, and U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous.