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'Acted like I was dead': 11-year-old boy says he survived Syria massacre

Shaam News Network via AP

This image made from amateur video purports to show 11-year-old Ali el-Sayed, a survivor of the Houla massacre that left 108 people dead.

BEIRUT -- When the gunmen began to slaughter his family, 11-year-old Ali el-Sayed says he fell to the floor of his home, soaking his clothes with his brother's blood to fool the killers into thinking he was already dead.

The Syrian boy tried to stop himself from trembling, even as the gunmen, with long beards and shaved heads, killed his parents and all four of his siblings, one by one.

The youngest to die was Ali's brother, 6-year-old Nader. His small body bore two bullet holes -- one in his head, another in his back. 

"I put my brother's blood all over me and acted like I was dead," Ali told The Associated Press over Skype on Wednesday, his raspy voice steady and matter-of-fact, five days after the killing spree that left him both an orphan and an only child.

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The AP contacted Ali through anti-regime activists in Houla who arranged for an interview with the child over Skype. Activists say he is one of the few survivors of a weekend massacre in the collection of poor farming villages and olive groves in Syria's central Homs province. More than 100 people were killed, many of them women and children who were shot or stabbed in their houses.

Alex Thomson, reporting for NBC News has the first report from inside the Syrian town of Houla where more than a hundred people were massacred, nearly half of them children. Villagers, eager to tell their stories, said they were attacked by pro-government Shia and Allawite militia. The Syrian government claims the massacre was the work of terrorists.

Almost all foreign journalists and observers banned from Syria so the boy's story cannot be independently verified. However, there is evidence to support Ali's version of events -- namely the pictures of 49 children shot or hacked to death in Houla on Friday. 

The Houla killings brought immediate, worldwide condemnation of President Bashar Assad, who has unleashed a violent crackdown on an uprising that began in March 2011. Activists say as many as 13,000 people have been killed since the revolt began. 

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U.N. investigators and witnesses blame at least some of the Houla killings on shadowy gunmen known as "shabiha" who operate on behalf of Assad's government. 

Recruited from the ranks of Assad's Alawite religious community, the militiamen enable the government to distance itself from direct responsibility for the execution-style killings, torture and revenge attacks that have become hallmarks of the shabiha. In many ways, the shabiha are more terrifying than the army and security forces, whose tactics include shelling residential neighborhoods and firing on protesters. The swaggering gunmen are deployed specifically to brutalize and intimidate Assad's opponents. 

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Activists who helped collect the dead in the aftermath of the Houla massacre described dismembered bodies in the streets, and row upon row of corpses shrouded in blankets. 

"When we arrived on the scene we started seeing the scale of the massacre," said Ahmad al-Qassem, a 35-year-old activist. "I saw a kid with his brains spilling out, another child who was no more than 1 year old who was stabbed in the head. The smell of death was overpowering." 

The regime denies any responsibility for the Houla killings, blaming them on terrorists. And even if the shabiha are responsible for the killings, there is no clear evidence that the regime directly ordered the massacre in a country spiraling toward civil war. 

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As witness accounts begin to leak out, it remains to be seen what, exactly, prompted the massacre. Although the Syrian uprising has been among the deadliest of the Arab Spring, the killings in Houla stand out for their sheer brutality and ruthlessness. 

According to the U.N., which is investigating the attack, most of the victims were shot at close range, as were Ali's parents and siblings. The attackers appeared to be targeting the most vulnerable people, such as children and the elderly, to terrorize the population. 

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In the wake of the attack, Western diplomats warned that Syria is nearing full-blown sectarian civil war that would be catastrophic for the entire Middle East,  and urged Russia to end its support for Assad and put pressure on him to stop the bloodshed.

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With anti-Assad rebels urging international envoy Kofi Annan to declare his peace plan dead, freeing them from any commitment to the tattered truce, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday that the prospect of spiraling violence presented "terrible" danger.

"A civil war in a country that would be driven by sectarian divides ... could then morph into a proxy war in the region because, remember, you have Iran deeply embedded in Syria," Clinton said during a trip to Copenhagen where she urged Moscow to increase pressure on Assad. 

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Russia, like China, has vetoed two Security Council resolutions calling for tougher action against Damascus, while stressing hopes that Annan's plan can spur a political solution. Washington called a reported shipment of Russian arms to Syria "reprehensible" although not illegal. 

"The Russians keep telling us they want to do everything they can to avoid a civil war because they believe that the violence would be catastrophic," Clinton said. 

"I think they are in effect propping up the regime at a time when we should be working on a political transition." 

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According to activists in and around Houla area, the massacre came after the army pounded the villages with artillery and clashed with local rebels following anti-regime protests. Several demonstrators were killed, and the rebels were forced to withdraw. The pro-regime gunmen later stormed in, doing the bulk of the killing. 

'Why did you take them?'
Syrian activist Maysara Hilaoui said he was at home when the massacre in Houla began. He said there were two waves of violence, one starting at 5 p.m. Friday and a second at 4 a.m. Saturday. 

"The shabiha took advantage of the withdrawal of rebel fighters," he said. "They started entering homes and killing the young as well as the old." 

Ali, the 11-year-old, said his mother began weeping the moment about 11 gunmen entered the family home in the middle of the night after arriving in a military armored vehicle and a bus. The men led Ali's father and oldest brother outside. 

"My mother started screaming 'Why did you take them? Why did you take them?'" Ali said. 

Soon afterward, he said, the gunmen killed Ali's entire family. 

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As Ali huddled with his youngest siblings, a man in civilian clothes took Ali's mother to the bedroom and shot her five times in the head and neck. 

"Then he left the bedroom. He used his flashlight to see in front of him," Ali said. "When he saw my sister Rasha, he shot her in the head while she was in the hallway." 

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Ali had been hiding near his brothers Nader, 6, and Aden, 8. The gunmen shot both of them, killing them instantly. He then fired at Ali but missed. 

"I was terrified," Ali said, speaking from Houla, where relatives have taken him in. "My whole body was trembling." 

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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