BEIRUT – Syria on Sunday strongly denied allegations that its forces killed scores of people – including women and children – in one of the deadliest days of the country's uprising, but the U.N. Security Council after an emergency session condemned government forces for shelling residential areas.
The killing of more than 100 people in the west-central area of Houla on Friday brought widespread international criticism of the regime of President Bashar Assad, although differences emerged from world powers over whether his forces were exclusively to blame.
The Security Council issued a press statement Sunday that "condemned in the strongest possible terms" the killings in Houla. It blamed Syrian forces for artillery and tank shelling of residential areas. It also condemned the killings of civilians "by shooting at close range and by severe physical abuse," but avoided saying who was responsible for these attacks.
The council's statement said the "outrageous use of force" against civilians violated international law and Syrian government commitments under previous U.N. resolutions to stop all violence, including the use of heavy weapons in populated areas. It said "those responsible for acts of violence must be held accountable," and asked the U.N. observer mission in Syria and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to investigate the attacks and report back to the council.
Britain and France had proposed issuing a press statement condemning the attack on civilians and pointing the finger at the Syrian government for Friday's massacre. But Russia called for an emergency council meeting saying it first wanted a briefing by Gen. Robert Mood, the head of the unarmed U.N. observer mission.
The massacre in Houla on Friday cast fresh doubts on the ability of an international peace plan put forward by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan to end Syria's 14-month-old crisis.
The brutality of the killings became clear in amateur videos posted online that showed scores of bodies, many of them young children, in neat rows and covered with blood and deep wounds. A later video showed the bodies, wrapped in white sheets, being placed in a sprawling mass grave.
Mood told the Security Council that U.N. observers at the scene now estimate 108 people were killed in Houla, U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told reporters outside the council chamber. The U.N. counted 49 children and 34 women among the dead.
Activists from the Houla area said the army pounded the villages with artillery and clashed with local rebels after protests Friday. Some activists said pro-regime thugs later stormed the area, doing the bulk of the killing by gunning down men in the streets and stabbing women and children in their homes.
The Syrian government rejected that narrative Sunday, painting a vastly different picture.
Speaking to reporters in Damascus, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said Syrian security forces were in their local bases Friday when they were attacked by "hundreds of heavily armed gunmen" firing mortars, heavy machine guns and anti-tank missiles, staring a nine-hour battle that killed three soldiers and wounded 16.
The soldiers fought back, but didn't leave their bases, he said.
"No Syrian tank or artillery entered this place where the massacres were committed," he said. "The security forces did not leave their places because they were in a state of self-defense."
He blamed the gunmen for what he called a "terrorist massacre" in Houla and accused the media, Western officials and others of spinning a "tsunami of lies" to justify foreign intervention in Syria.
Makdissi did not provide videos or other evidence to support his version of events, nor did he give a death toll. He said the government had formed a committee to investigate and share its findings with Annan, who is due to visit Damascus in the coming days.
Throughout the uprising, the government has deployed snipers, troops and thugs to quash protests and shelled opposition areas.
A video released by the U.N. team in Syria on Sunday showed observers in Houla the day after the attack, meeting with local rebels and watching residents collect more bodies for burial. It also showed two destroyed armored personnel carriers – suggesting that local rebels put up more of a fight than the activists acknowledged.
In a letter to the Security Council, Ban said villages in the Houla area have been outside government control but surrounded by a heavy Syrian military presence.
When U.N. observers visited the area on Saturday, Ban said they saw 85 corpses in a mosque in Taldou and "observed shotgun wounds and wounds consistent with artillery fire." He said "the patrol also saw artillery and tank shells, as well as fresh tank tracks" and observed that "many buildings had been destroyed by heavy weapons."
At U.N. headquarters, Russia's deputy U.N. ambassador Alexander Pankin told reporters as he headed into the closed-door Security Council meeting that "there is substantial ground to believe that the majority of those who were killed were either slashed, cut by knives, or executed at point-blank distance."
"We have to establish whether it was Syrian authorities ... before we agree on something," he said.
A press statement is weaker than a presidential statement, which becomes part of the council record, or a legally binding U.N. resolution, but it must be approved by all 15 members and therefore reflects strong Security Council backing.
Annan's peace plan for Syria, sponsored by the U.N. and the Arab League, is one of the few points of agreement among world powers about Syria's crisis, which began in March 2011 with protests calling for political change. As the government violently cracked down on the uprising, many in the opposition took up arms to defend themselves and attack government troops.
The U.N. put the death toll weeks ago at more than 9,000. Hundreds more have been killed since then.
Daily violence has marred the plan since a cease-fire was supposed to begin April 12. The Houla attack made Friday the deadliest day since the truce was announced, and has cast a shadow over Annan's visit.
In another defiant move, Syria on Sunday denied permission for Annan's deputy to travel to Damascus with his boss, a senior Arab League official said. The rejection of former Palestinian Foreign Minister Nasser al-Kidwa was intended as a slap to the Arab League, which suspended Syria's membership and approved sanctions against it last year.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. Annan's spokesman declined to comment.
The Houla attacks caused outrage among American and international officials that Makdissi's comments Sunday failed to assuage.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he would summon Syria's most senior diplomat in the U.K. on Monday so the Foreign Office could "make clear our condemnation of the Syrian regime's actions."
Kuwait, which currently heads the 22-member Arab League, called for an Arab ministerial meeting to "take steps to put an end to the oppressive practices against the Syrian people."
Switzerland's Foreign Ministry urged that an international inquiry be convened, saying the killings "could constitute a war crime."
In Paris, the head of the exile Syrian National Council also condemned the killings.
"The kids of Houla are the kids of all of Syria," Burhan Ghalioun told reporters. "Killing the kids of Houla is like killing the kids of all of Syria."
Anti-regime activists scoffed at the government's version of events. One Houla activist said via Skype that the area had at most 300 fighters, but that none had more than rifles and that they often lacked ammunition.
"If we had anti-tank missiles, there would be no tanks left in the area," said Mohammed, declining to give his full name for fear of retribution.
Activists reported shelling, gunfire and arrest raids in opposition areas throughout the country Sunday as well as clashes between regime forces and rebels in a number of areas. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces killed at least 14 civilians, while rebels killed nine soldiers.
Activist claims could not be independently verified. The Syrian government bars most media from operating in the country.
Annan's plan calls for eventual talks between all sides on a political solution to the crisis.
The U.S. hopes Russia can use its influence with Damascus to press for a political transition similar to that seen in Yemen. In February, longtime Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh passed power to his deputy in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
U.S. officials say Russia does not oppose a political transition in Syria in theory, but has not agreed to specific terms.
Lederer reported from the United Nations. Associated Press writers Adam Schreck in Dubai and Hamza Hendawi in Cairo contributed to this report.