BEIRUT and AMMAN, Jordan -- At least 90 people were killed Friday during shelling of the Houla area in Syria's Homs province, a human rights group reported.
But an activist on the ground in Houla put the death toll in the alleged massacre at 106, of which 47 were children. Graphic video showing dead children has circulated widely on social media websites and YouTube, fueling anger at international monitors and a rise in Syria's sectarian tensions.
Houla, with a population of about 120,000, is an area of small towns and villages such as Kafar Laha and Teldo. The shelling has focused on Teldo, according to activists. Syrian regular forces have been shelling and firing heavy machine guns throughout the day in an attempt to cripple the area before raiding, according to a statement from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition, British-based group.
"The number of those killed in the massacre is likely to increase since at least 300 people have been injured during the attack, and dozens are in critical conditions," the statement added.
The group voiced "its severe disappointment in the U.N. monitoring mission in Syria," adding that the group “reported the siege of the city and the death of civilians Friday afternoon, yet no monitors moved into the area."
Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the observatory, said: "The number has risen from 50 last night as we reported to 90 today."
“The shelling started Friday after noon prayers, around the time when demonstrations take place, with heavy artillery and tank fire,” said Abu Yazan, an activist reached via Skype in Houla. "Later the regular forces started shelling civilian homes and houses of defected soldiers. FSA replied by targeting checkpoints. After evening prayers the shelling intensified. Many families fled, houses were destroyed."
The state-run news agency SANA offered a different account. "Armed terrorist groups attacked law-enforcement forces and civilians in the town of Teldo in Homs countryside, prompting the authorities to intervene and engage the terrorists," it reported.
The government has accused opposition groups of exaggerating civilian casualties while downplaying killings of police, soldiers and security personnel. On Saturday observers were dispatched to the area, according to a Syria-based spokeswoman for of the mission.
"We dispatched our observers there and we're waiting to hear back from them," observer spokeswoman Sausan Ghosheh told The Times. "[We dispatched] the ones based in the area. I don’t have the specific details. We dispatched them there."
Video posted on YouTube and claiming to show the scene of the shelling depicted horrific scenes of bloody, mangled corpses of children and women piled in a room. "Massacre in Houla -- all children!" a man is heard shouting in a video as the camera zooms in on children's bloody faces.
"These are all children! Watch, you dogs, you Arabs, you animals -- look at these children."
Many of the children's eyes are still open and they look as though they died in fear. The source of the video could not be independently verified.
-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut and Rima Marrouch in Amman, Jordan
Photo: This image from amateur video, released by Shaam News Network, purports to show an anti-government protest in Homs, Syria. Credit: Shaam News Network via AP