Briefing Security Council diplomats by video from Damascus, Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, head of the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria, said that 116 people are thought to have died in Houla and that U.N. observers who visited the town verified that most appeared to have been killed in shelling by government tanks and artillery.
Mood reported that there were “multiple” Syrian army tanks in the Houla area, contradicting the Foreign Ministry spokesman’s account and in violation of Syria’s commitment to the U.N. peace plan.
He also said there was “clear evidence” of the aftermath of shelling and mortar attacks, according to a diplomat who was at the briefing.
In a letter to the Security Council, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said U.N. observers who visited the town saw 85 bodies at a mosque with gunshot and artillery wounds. They also saw more than a dozen other bodies, including those of women and children, some of whom appeared to have suffered “severe physical abuse,” the letter said.
Residents of Houla said most of the victims had been killed at close range by the armed civilians known as the shabiha.
Houla is the name given to a cluster of four small Sunni communities on the northwestern edge of the central city of Homs. It is surrounded by five villages inhabited by members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect. The killers were armed civilians from those villages, residents say, underscoring the danger that Syria’s conflict could descend into sectarian war.
Houla residents have acknowledged that at least two Syrian army officers were killed in clashes that erupted between local rebels and Syrian forces Friday afternoon. But they assert that the government then embarked on a spree of punitive shelling against the village, after which the shabiha stormed homes in the area and randomly butchered men, women and children.
“Some of them were killed by gunshots at close range, some of them were killed with bayonets, and some of them had their heads smashed,” said a Houla resident who uses the alias Hamza al-Omar.
The conflicting accounts pointed to the difficulty of establishing what is happening in Syria at a time when journalists’ access to the country is restricted and the complexity and scope of the violence appear to be deepening.
A correspondent for Britain’s Channel 4 television who visited Houla on Sunday alongside Syrian troops said that although it was clear the army was present in the village, it was also clear the troops were encountering resistance from armed rebels. He said that the troops were pinned down by fire for several hours and that one soldier was shot.
In his letter to the Security Council, Ban said violence is on the rise again, after a shaky cease-fire that went into effect April 12 had somewhat reduced the bloodshed. “Violence against civilian population and clashes between government forces and armed opposition groups in various parts of Syria have escalated in the past two days,” he wrote.
As the Security Council was meeting, opposition groups reported the deaths of at least 24 people in an intensive bombardment of the city of Hama, another opposition stronghold. But activists in the town said they feared dozens more had been killed in the shelling, which continued late into the night.
Lynch reported from the United Nations.