Beirut, Lebanon – The Syrian government on Sunday rejected claims that it carried out a massacre that killed more than 90 villagers, including at least 32 children, a death toll that has prompted a sharp denunciation from United Nations officials.
“We unequivocally deny the responsibility of government forces for the massacre,” Jihad Makdissi, the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, told a news conference in Damascus. He reiterated the standard Syrian government line that the deaths were caused by a terrorist attack and regretted that the United Nations and other governments seemed to have accepted the opposition’s version of events.
In one of the worst episodes of carnage since the uprising began 15 months ago, Syrian tanks and artillery pounded Houla, a rebel-controlled village near the restive city of Homs, during the day, opposition groups said, then soldiers and pro-government fighters stormed the village and killed families in their homes late at night.
Amateur videos said to be taken in the aftermath showed row after row of victims, many of them children with what appeared to be bullet holes in their temples. Other videos showed gruesome shrapnel wounds caused by what activists said was a barrage of shelling that started Friday in response to demonstrations after the weekly prayer service and that continued Saturday.
Mr. Makdissi said the army did not send tanks into Houla, that security forces did not leave their positions but had remained in a defensive posture. Instead, he said, hundreds of gunmen armed with machine guns, mortars and antitank missiles began attacking government positions in a skirmish that lasted much of the day and well into the night. Three soldiers were killed and 16 wounded, he said.
In saying that tanks did not enter Houla, Mr. Makdissi seemed to avoid the thrust of accusations made by the United Nations that the government had shelled civilian neighborhoods indiscriminately.
After monitors visited the village on Saturday, counting at least 92 bodies, they said they found spent tank shells, which they cited as evidence that the Syrian military had violated its part of a truce in firing heavy artillery at civilians.
International officials largely blamed the government. Mr. Makdissi said that Syrian forces would not fire on civilians. Yet they have a history of doing so throughout the uprising.
Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, and Kofi Annan, his predecessor and envoy to Syria, issued a scathing condemnation.
“This appalling and brutal crime involving indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force is a flagrant violation of international law and of the commitments of the Syrian government to cease the use of heavy weapons in population centers and violence in all its forms,” the top United Nations officials said in a statement. They called on Syria to stop using heavy weapons in population centers and for all sides to cease violence.
Mr. Makdissi said judicial military committee inquiry had been established that would investigate and report back in three days. He noted that Mr. Annan was due in Damascus for talks on Monday. Arab League officials in Cairo told The Associated Press, however, that the Syrians had barred Mr. Annan’s deputy, former Palestinian foreign minister Nasser al-Qidwa.
Kuwait, which holds the Arab League presidency, has called for an emergency meeting of its foreign ministers to discuss the attack. Syrian ties with the League were strained last year after its membership was suspended. In addition, Mr. Qidwa is the nephew of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, with whom Damascus was often at odds.
There was widespread international condemnation of the massacre, although tellingly nothing from Moscow or Beijing, both of which support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The British government said Sunday that Syria’s chargé d’affaires had been called to a meeting Monday with the Foreign Office so Britain could stress its “condemnation” over the incident.
A White House official called the attack “a vile testament to an illegitimate regime that responds to peaceful political protest with unspeakable and inhuman brutality.”
Gory images posted online — particularly the scene of rows of dead children smeared with blood — prompted an emotional outpouring of antigovernment demonstrations across Syria and calls for sectarian revenge.
Activists said that much of the slaughter had been carried out by pro-government thugs, or “shabiha,” from the area. Houla is a Sunni Muslim town, while three villages around it are mostly Alawite, the religion of Mr. Assad and whose adherents are the core of his security forces. A fourth village is Shiite Muslim.
A man in a black knitted mask who appeared on one YouTube video, for example, said it was time “to prepare for vengeance against this awful sectarian regime.”
The rebel Free Syrian Army, the loose federation of armed militias across the country, issued a statement saying it was no longer committed to the United Nations truce because the plan was merely buying time for the government to kill civilians and destroy cities and villages.
“We won’t allow truce after truce, which prolongs the crisis for years,” the statement said.
The Syrian government blamed “terrorists,” its catchall phrase for the opposition, for killing the civilians.
State television repeatedly broadcast pictures of members of one household who had been massacred, calling the deaths “part of the ugly crimes that the terrorists are committing against the Syrians with the financial support of some Arab states and others.”
SANA, the state-run news agency, said that “armed terrorist groups attacked law-enforcement forces and civilians” in the nearby town of Teldo, which prompted security forces to “intervene and engage the terrorists.”
But the direct accusation from the United Nations, which is monitoring the tattered April 12 cease-fire, rebutted the government’s standard claim that outsiders or their domestic dupes are to blame.
Syria sharply limits access to the country for foreign correspondents, making independent verification of events there difficult. But there has been a pattern of similar government assaults in recent months against villages sympathetic to the opposition.
Activists said that there had been firefights between the armed opposition that controlled the village and the government forces besieging it. Although the United Nations statements called for stopping violence on both sides, neither suggested that the opposition was involved in the deaths of civilians in Houla.
The United Nations observers produced a quick assessment, the first time they have issued a publicly damning report so soon after an episode of violence. Despite their efforts, as well as the unusual step of the United Nations directly accusing the government of perpetrating major violence, the massacre soured Syrians even more on their presence, since the killing took place despite observers being deployed in nearby Homs.
The United Nations observers reported that in addition to the more than 90 dead, they counted more than 300 wounded, Mr. Annan’s spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, said. Opposition groups put the death toll at around 100 killed, including 50 children.In its report, the United Nations statement stopped short of accusing the government of responsibility for the entire toll.
Gen. Robert Mood, the head of the United Nations observer mission in Syria, said in a statement that “the killing of innocent children and civilians needs to stop,” but added that the circumstances behind all the deaths remained “unclear.”
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton focused on what she described as the “vicious assault that involved a regime artillery and tank barrage on a residential neighborhood.”
“Those who perpetrated this atrocity must be identified and held to account,” she said in a statement. “And the United States will work with the international community to intensify our pressure on Assad and his cronies, whose rule by murder and fear must come to an end.”
Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, issued a statement accusing Syria’s government of committing “new massacres” and added that France would organize a meeting of the roughly 80-member Friends of Syria group as soon as possible.
The British foreign secretary, William Hague, said Britain was looking for a strong international response and hoped to convene an “urgent” session of the United Nations Security Council “in the coming days.”
The Syrian National Council, the umbrella opposition organization in exile, condemned the killing and called for three days of mourning.
Details of what happened were murky, as is often the case in Syria.
Saleem Kabani, an activist reached via Skype who said he was in the town, said that government forces had shelled Houla heavily all day Friday, also raking it with machine-gun fire and firing mortar shells. There had already been a substantial toll from that assault, he and others said, with some residents killed as their houses collapsed.
Then gunmen from the Free Syrian Army left the center of the town to try to assault the government checkpoints from which much of the barrage originated, he said.
Taking advantage of the absence of any armed men inside the village late Friday, government soldiers moved in, along with volunteers from surrounding hamlets, to kill civilians, Mr. Kabani said.
Another activist in Homs reached via Skype, using only the name Saif, said the people of Houla were demonstrating on Saturday despite renewed shelling. Activists in Houla had told him that more bodies were left on roads exposed to government fire and in houses, he said.
The government appeared to have anticipated the demonstrations that took place on Saturday in solidarity with Houla. Damascus took on the look of an armed camp on Saturday, with closed shops and a heavy military presence.
Activists reported demonstrations in at least 10 neighborhoods. Few protesters seemed to accept the government version of events. “The regime kills thousands of Syrian citizens, and Annan’s monitors are watching and writing the number of killed people as if they were game scores,” said Fadi, a 25-year-old demonstrator in the southern Damascus district of Qaddam.
An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Damascus, Syria.