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They frequently work closely with soldiers and security forces, but the regime never acknowledges their existence, allowing it to deny responsibility for their actions.

A Syrian official on Tuesday again denied any involvement.

“It is irrational that any party who wants to make Annan’s mission a success would ever commit such a massacre,” Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told reporters Tuesday. He said Syria remained committed to Annan’s plan and “had not committed a single violation.”

Activists have posted videos of tanks and armored vehicles in the middle of cities, a violation of the plan, and U.N. observers said they found spent tank and artillery shells in Houla after the massacre there. Funeral videos also showed local rebels among the mourners — making it unlikely they carried out the killings.

Anti-regime rebels around the country regularly attack military convoys and checkpoints, killing soldiers.

Syria’s international isolation deepened Tuesday in response to the killings, as France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain, Canada and Australia expelled Syrian diplomats.

French President Francois Hollande said Paris was expelling the Syrian ambassador and that France will host a meeting in early July of the so-called Friends of Syria, a group of nations seeking to resolve the crisis.

Britain expelled three diplomats; Australia kicked out two.

Austria said it cannot expel its Syrian ambassador because he is also the representative to U.N. organizations in Geneva. But Foreign Ministry spokesman Nikolaus Lutterotti said the ambassador would be summoned so officials could protest the Houla killings.

Longtime Syrian ally Russia has largely stood by Damascus, although Moscow is growing increasingly critical — particularly over the Houla massacre. On Tuesday, however, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused unnamed countries of trying to use the Houla killings “as a pretext for taking military measures.”

He said such nations sought to impede Annan’s plan because it seeks dialogue between Syrians, not regime change.

Syria’s unrest began in March 2011, with protests calling for political change. Government troops swiftly cracked down at the uprising spread, and many in the opposition have taken up arms to defend their towns and attack government troops.

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Jordans reported from Geneva. Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara, Turkey, contributed reporting.