Syria blamed terrorists for the Sunday massacre of more than 100 people, including children. Washington isn't buying it. NBC's Richard Engel reports.
Updated at 6:01 p.m. ET -- The U.N. Security Council on Sunday unanimously condemned the Syrian government for heavy-weapons attacks on the town of Houla, the site of a massacre of at least 108 people, including many children, the council president said.
"The Security Council condemned in the strongest possible terms the killings, confirmed by United Nations observers, of dozens of men, women and children and the wounding of hundreds more in the village of (Houla), near Homs, in attacks that involved a series of government artillery and tank shellings on a residential neighborhood," the non-binding statement said.
"The Security Council also condemned the killing of civilians by shooting at close range and by severe physical abuse," said the statement, which was read out after the council's three-hour emergency meeting by Azerbaijan's Deputy U.N. Ambassador Tofig Musayev.
Facing mounting international outrage over the killings, Syria earlier on Sunday accused rebels of carrying out the massacre.
Images of bloodied and lifeless young bodies, lain carefully side by side after the onslaught on Friday, triggered shock around the world and underlined the failure of a six-week-old U.N. cease-fire plan to stop the violence.
Syrian authorities blamed "terrorists" for the massacre, among the worst carnage in the 14-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, which has cost about 10,000 lives.
"Women, children and old men were shot dead. This is not the hallmark of the heroic Syrian army," Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdesi told reporters in Damascus.
Makdesi 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.
Opposition activists said Assad's forces shelled Houla after a protest and then clashed with fighters from the Sunni Muslim-led insurgency.
Activists say Assad's ‘shabbiha' militia, loyal to an establishment dominated by members of the minority Alawite sect, then hacked dozens of the victims to death, or shot them.
Maysara al-Hilawi said he saw the bodies of six children and their parents in a ransacked house in the town.
"The Abdelrazzak family house was the first one I entered. The children's corpses were piled on top of each other, either with their throats cut or shot at close range," Hilawi, an opposition activist, said by telephone from the area.
"I helped collect more than 100 bodies in the last two days, mostly women and children. The last were six members of the al-Kurdi family. A father and his five kids. The mother is missing," he said.
Damascus protesters shot dead
Syrian forces shot dead two men on Sunday at a protest in Damascus against the killings in Houla, opposition activists said. The men's funerals also turned into demonstrations.
Footage broadcast by activists in the Damascus suburb of Yalda showed a crowd of hundreds at one of the men's funerals shouting "the people want the downfall of the regime."
Shaam News Network / AFP - Getty Images
A picture released by the Syrian opposition's Shaam News Network allegedly shows smoke billowing following a blast targeting a Syrian security forces vehicle on the ringroad outside the Damascus Mazze district early Sunday.
The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting Sunday to discuss the killings.
The United Nations believes that at least 108 people were killed in the massacre, the U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told the meeting.
U.N. observers in Syria have confirmed that artillery and tank shells were fired, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a letter to the Security Council.
The letter, which was obtained by Reuters, said the observers "viewed the bodies of the dead and confirmed from an examination of ordnance that artillery and tank shells were fired at a residential neighborhood."
Western countries and Arab states opposed to Assad put the blame for the deaths squarely on Damascus.
The Gulf Cooperation Council of Sunni-led monarchies accused Assad's soldiers of using excessive force and urged the international community to "assume its responsibilities to halt the daily bloodshed in Syria."
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton spoke of a "heinous act perpetrated by the Syrian regime against its own civilian population" in a statement on Sunday. The head of the European parliament said it could amount to a war crime.
'Rule by murder'
"We are horrified by credible reports of targeting killing, including stabbing and ax attacks on women and children in Houla. These acts serve as a vile testament to an illegitimate regime that responds to peaceful political protest with unspeakable and inhuman brutality," U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said Sunday.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded that those who carried out the killings be held to account.
"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," she said.
France said it would call a meeting of the Friends of Syria, a group of Western and Arab countries keen to see Assad removed.
Britain said it would summon Syria's envoy over the massacre and that it would call for a meeting of the U.N. Security Council in coming days.
The United Arab Emirates requested an urgent meeting of the Arab League, whose head, Nabil Elaraby, urged the U.S. Security Council to stop the killing.
Former U.N. Secretary-General Annan is to brief the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday and is likely to be guided on who is responsible by reports from U.N. observers in Houla.
Although the cease-fire plan negotiated by Annan has failed to stop the violence, the United Nations is nearing full deployment of a 300-strong unarmed observer force meant to monitor a truce.
The plan calls for a truce, withdrawal of troops from cities and dialogue between government and opposition.
Syria calls the revolt a "terrorist" conspiracy run from abroad, a veiled reference to Sunni Muslim Gulf powers that want to see weapons provided to the insurgents.
The United Nations has accused Assad's forces and insurgents alike of grave human rights abuses, including summary executions and torture.
NBC News contributed to this report from Reuters.
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