Syrian government denies blame in attack that killed dozens, including 32 children

The Syrian government denied on Sunday that its forces were responsible for the deaths of dozens of people, including 32 children, in a village in central Syria allegedly during a fierce artillery bombardment.

The official news agency SANA reported that Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi “has categorically denied responsibility of the Syrian forces for the massacre” in the Houla area, a cluster of small villages northwest of the city of Homs.

Opposition groups claim at least 90 people died in a bombardment of the village Friday night, and the United Nations said in a statement Saturday that its monitors had visited the village and confirmed the killings of “dozens of men, women and children and the wounding of hundreds more.”

The U.N. Security Council called an emergency meeting on Sunday afternoon to discuss the killings.

It appeared to be one of the bloodiest single incidents of the 14-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and the deadliest since a fragile, U.N.-brokered cease-fire went into effect April 12.

Makdissi said at a news conference in Damascus that the killings had been carried out by “armed terrorist groups,” SANA reported. “Brutal killing doesn’t belong to the ethics of the Syrian army,” the agency quoted Makdissi as saying.

The Syrian government has from the outset portrayed the uprising as the work of terrorists and Islamic extremists. The area where the killings took place is known to be a stronghold for the opposition, in which many citizens long ago took up arms to defend themselves against the government’s harsh crackdown.

The U.N. statement, issued by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Kofi Annan, the joint special envoy to Syria, blamed the government, saying the observers had verified that the victims died in shelling by Syrian forces of a residential neighborhood.

“This appalling and brutal crime involving indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force is a flagrant violation of international law and of the commitments of the Syrian Government to cease the use of heavy weapons in population centers and violence in all its forms,” the statement said. “Those responsible for perpetrating this crime must be held to account.”

In a separate statement, the head of the U.N. mission in Syria, Gen. Robert Mood, said that the dead included at least 32 children under 10 years of age, the Associated Press reported.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood offered conflicting accounts of what happened. The Observatory said that all of the dead had been killed in the bombardment, but the Brotherhood reported that some of the victims had been killed when pro-government militias known as shabiha raided homes on the outskirts of the village, hacking and shooting civilians and setting fire to houses.

Ahmed Kassem, a resident of the town, said the villagers all died in the shelling inflicted after clashes erupted during the weekly anti-government protest Friday.

Syrian forces opened fire on the protesters when they spilled out of a mosque after Friday prayers, prompting local armed civilians to fire back, Kassem said, speaking by telephone from the village.

During the exchanges of fire, two Syrian officers and “several” soldiers were killed, he said, and Syrian forces withdrew. At 8 p.m., they began bombarding the village using tanks and artillery, with shells falling at the rate of one a minute until well past midnight, Kassem said.

The account could not be independently confirmed because of reporting restrictions imposed by the Syrian authorities. Activists posted gruesome footage on YouTube of the limp bodies of children and of a mass burial of some of the victims Saturday.

The official government news agency SANA did not mention the bombardment. But it reported what it described as “two horrible massacres against a number of families” in Taldo and blamed “al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups.” The agency posted blurred pictures of what it said were the victims of the killings.

The bloodshed further called into question the efficacy of the already fragile cease-fire, and of the month-old U.N. mission to monitor it. There are 271 monitors in Syria out of aplanned total of 300, according to the United Nations.

In a grim assessment of the situation delivered in a letter Friday to the U.N. Security Council, Ban acknowledged that there had been little progress toward the implementation of a six-point, U.N.-mandated peace plan aimed at halting the violence and initiating a process of political reform.

“The overall situation in Syria remains extremely serious,” the letter said. “There is a continuing crisis on the ground, characterized by regular violence, deteriorating humanitarian conditions, human rights violations and continuing political confrontation.”

Syrian troops and tanks are still deployed in residential areas in violation of the terms of the plan, and the many thousands of political detainees believed to be imprisoned have not been released, the letter said.

It also noted “an alarming number of explosions in population centers, including acts of terrorism.”

Moreover, it added, “significant parts of some cities appear to be under the de facto control of opposition elements,” an indication that the government’s crackdown is not succeeding in crushing the revolt.

“There is an overall atmosphere of tension, mistrust and fear,” the letter said.

Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.
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