- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 29, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — The U.N.’s human rights office said Tuesday that most of the 108 victims of a chilling massacre in Syria last week were shot at close range, some of them women and children who were gunned down in their homes.

The report offered grim new details of an event that could prove to be a turning point in Syria’s 15 months of violence, but did not decisively say who carried out most of the killings. It did, however, cite survivors and witnesses who blamed the house-to-house killings on pro-government militias known as shabiha, who often operate as hired muscle for the regime.

“What is very clear is this was an absolutely abominable event that took place in Houla, and at least a substantial part of it was summary executions of civilians, women and children,” said Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. High commissioner for Human Rights. “At this point, it looks like entire families were shot in their houses.”

The brutality of the Houla killings, documented in gruesome amateur videos of scores of bodies laid out before burial, sparked international outrage and raised new questions about the ability of a U.N.-brokered plan to end 15-months of violence in Syria.

At least seven nations, including France and Britain, expelled Syrian diplomats Tuesday to protest the killings, ramping up the pressure on President Bashar Assad’s regime.

The U.N. said that at least 108 people, including 34 women and 49 children, were killed in an attack that began on Friday and continued through the night on Houla, a group of poor farming villages northwest of the central Syrian city of Homs.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday in Geneva, Colville said U.N. monitors who visited the area found that fewer than 20 of the dead were killed by artillery fire. The rest appeared to have been shot at close range.

He said information from U.N. observers and other sources indicated that many of the victims were killed in the Houla village of Taldaw in two separate incidents. Locals blamed the killings on pro-regime militias known as shabiha, which sometimes act “in concert” with government forces, he said.

He said a fuller investigation was needed before he could comment on that, and called on Syria to allow free access to U.N. investigators.

In Damascus, international envoy Kofi Annan met with Assad on Tuesday to express “grave concern” about the Houla killings and other violence, said Annan’s spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi. Annan said his plan cannot work without “bold steps” to stop the violence and release detainees.

Videos posted online by anti-regime activists show explosions in Houla, dismembered bodies lying in the streets, then row upon row of the dead laid out before being buried in a mass grave. Some of the videos showed dozens of dead children, some with gaping wounds.

Houla activists reached by Skype said government troops shelled the area after anti-government protests on Friday and clashed with local rebels. Later, shabiha from nearby villages swept through the area, stabbing residents and shooting them at close range.

The Syrian regime has denied any role in the massacre, blaming the killings on “armed terrorists” who attacked army positions in the area and slaughtered innocent civilians. But it has provided no evidence to support its narrative nor has it given a death toll.

U.N. observers said they found tank and artillery shells in Houla after the attack, but stopped short of blaming regime forces for Friday’s killings.

The new information provided by the U.N. draws attention to the role of the shabiha in 15 months of violence in Syria. Assad’s government often deploys pro-regime thugs or armed militias to repress protests or carry out more military-style attacks on opposition areas.

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.