- Associated Press - Thursday, May 31, 2012

BEIRUT — Syria on Thursday blamed up to 800 rebel fighters for the massacre in central Syria last week that killed more than 100 people, nearly half of them children, in its most comprehensive explanation to date of the bloodshed.

The narrative starkly contradicted accounts of witnesses who blamed “shabiha,” or the shadowy gunmen who operate on behalf of President Bashar Assad’s regime. The United Nations also said it had strong suspicions those pro-regime gunmen were responsible for much of the carnage on Friday in a cluster of villages known as Houla.

Facing international outrage over the killings, Damascus launched its own investigation into the deaths and announced that special prayers for the victims would be held at mosques across the country on Friday.

At a news conference Thursday, Qassem Jamal Suleiman, who headed the government’s investigation into the massacre, categorically denied any regime role. He said hundreds of rebel gunmen carried out the slaughter after launching a coordinated attack on five security checkpoints.

The aim, he said, was to frame the government and to ignite sectarian strife in Syria.

“Government forces did not enter the area where the massacre occurred, not before the massacre and not after it,” he said, adding that the victims were families who refused to oppose the government or carry arms.

A Houla-based opposition activist said it was clear that there had been no government investigation.

“The regime is looking for ways to justify the massacre to the world,” said Saria al-Houlany. “It’s clear that there wasn’t any professional probe. If we had 800 fighters in Houla, this massacre would not have happened.”

The Houla massacre was one of the deadliest incidents since the uprising against Mr. Assad’s repressive regime started in March last year. Activists say about 13,000 have been killed in 15 months.

The area is still under attack. The government focused its shelling Thursday on the Houla village of al-Tibeh. The activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that some residents fled to nearby towns and villages “fearing a new massacre” as the area again came under fire.

Persistent bloodshed despite a cease-fire agreement has raised pressure on the international community to act.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton laid out the clearest case yet for why the Obama administration is reluctant to intervene militarily in Syria, even as the U.S. expressed revulsion over the Houla killings.

Mrs. Clinton said Russia and China would have to agree before the United States and other nations engage in what could become a protracted conflict in support of a disorganized rebel force.

“We’re nowhere near putting together any type of coalition other than to alleviate the suffering,” Mrs. Clinton told reporters Thursday after meeting with top officials in Denmark, a key contributor to last year’s NATO-led mission against Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.

Russia’s continued support for Mr. Assad “is going to help contribute to a civil war,” Mrs. Clinton warned.

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