- Associated Press - Sunday, May 27, 2012

DAMASCUS, Syria — The Syrian government on Sunday denied responsibility for an assault on villages that left more than 100 people dead, blaming the killings on “hundreds of heavily armed gunmen” who also attacked soldiers in the area.

Friday’s assault on the central area of Houla was one of the bloodiest single events in Syria’s 15-month-old uprising, and gruesome images of dozens of children killed in the attacks prompted a wave of international outrage.

The United Nations said that dozens of children under the age of 10 were among the dead and issued a statement appearing to hold the Syrian regime responsible.

The Security Council issued a press statement Sunday that “condemned in the strongest possible terms” the killings in Houla. It blamed Syrian forces for artillery and tank shelling of residential areas. It also condemned the killings of civilians “by shooting at close range and by severe physical abuse,” but avoided saying who was responsible for these attacks.

Britain and France had proposed issuing a press statement condemning the attack on civilians and pointing the finger at the Syrian government for Friday’s massacre. But Russia called for an emergency council meeting, saying it first wanted a briefing by Gen. Robert Mood, the head of the unarmed U.N. observer mission.

Persistent violence has cast doubt about the future of international efforts to halt bloodshed between the regime and forces fighting against it.

The brutality of the killings became clear in amateur videos posted online that showed scores of bodies, many of them young children, in neat rows and covered with blood and deep wounds. A later video showed the bodies, wrapped in white sheets, being placed in a sprawling mass grave.

Gen. Mood told the Security Council that U.N. observers at the scene now estimate 108 people were killed in Houla, U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told reporters outside the council chamber. The U.N. counted 49 children and 34 women among the dead.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi disputed those accounts, saying Syria is being subjected to a “tsunami of lies.”

“We categorically deny the responsibility of government forces for the massacre,” Mr. Makdissi said Sunday during a news conference in Damascus.

Mr. Makdissi said “hundreds of heavily armed gunmen carrying machine guns, mortars and anti-tank missiles” launched a simultaneous attack against five army positions from several locations, starting about 2 p.m. and continuing for nine hours.

Three soldiers were killed and 16 were wounded, he said.

“There were no Syrian tanks or artillery in the vicinity,” Mr. Makdissi said, adding that gunmen used anti-tank missiles and “Syrian troops retaliated in defense of their positions.”

A Syrian military offensive on Sunday left 33 people dead in and around the restive town of Hama, with seven children among the latest victims, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The London-based observatory said Monday that the central town had come under machine-gun and rocket fire just as the Security Council was meeting about the Houla massacre.



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