BEIRUT — Syrian authorities on Sunday denied responsibility for a weekend massacre in the central town of Houla that the United Nations said left about 90 people dead, more than a third of them children.
The killings — documented in grisly Internet images of battered children’s corpses and rows of fresh graves — have drawn international condemnation and raised new doubts about the peace plan developed by Kofi Annan, special envoy for the United Nations and the Arab League, who is due to visit Syria this week.
The Syrian government “categorically denies the government forces’ responsibility for the massacre,” Jihad Makdissi, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, told reporters in Damascus, the Syrian capital. Makdissi also denounced the “tsunami of lies” that he said wrongly pointed the finger at Syrian forces.
The spokesman blamed the killings on “terrorists,” Syrian officials' usual depiction of anti-government rebels, and said authorities had opened an inquiry into the deaths.
The spokesman's version of the events — that the conflict began Friday afternoon when armed men attacked security forces in Houla — is at odds with opposition accounts of a military onslaught against helpless civilians using tanks and artillery, weapons largely limited to the arsenal of the Syrian military.
A statement from the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency noted the “suspicious coincidence” between the attacks and the upcoming visit by Annan.
Each side in the Syrian conflict has the accused the other of killing civilians and then publicly blaming its adversary for the deaths. The Syrian government has alleged that the opposition has fabricated attacks and staged assaults at key junctures in the U.N. peace process in a bid to sabotage progress. Opposition leaders have denied such tactics.
Syrian authorities have restricted access to the media and outside monitors, making it difficult for independent observers to determine who is responsible for much of the bloodshed in Syria. More than 10,000 people have died in a rebellion that began with street protests in March 2011 against the government of President Bashar Assad.
Opposition activists blamed government forces for the Houla killings, which appear to have occurred on Friday and early Saturday. The opposition says the victims fell to a government offensive in Houla township, which is situated in central Homs province, a hotbed of rebel resistance to Assad’s rule. Video from the town indicates that some parts of the town remained under rebel control as of Saturday.
The United Nations said its investigation had indicated that a residential neighborhood was hit by artillery shells and tank rounds. U.N. observers who visited the scene on Saturday counted at least 90 bodies, including at least 32 children under the age of 10. Some victims died from artillery strikes, the U.N. said; others were killed at closer range with small-caliber weapons.
Makdissi, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said government forces were in “self-defense mode.” The spokesman said the conflict began when hundreds of armed men, wielding heavy weapons including mortars, machine guns and armor-piercing rockets, attacked Syrian military positions, killing three security personnel and wounding 16 others.
Opposition activists say it was government forces who initiated the attack in Houla. But both sides agreed that fierce clashes between government forces and the rebels ensued in Taldo, the town in Houla where the massacre took place.
— Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut and Rima Marrouch in Amman, Jordan.
Photo: A screen grab made from a video published by Sham News Network on a social network on Saturday purports to show bodies of Syrians killed a day earlier being made ready for a mass funeral in Houla, Syria. The content of the video could not be independently verified. Credit: Sham News Network / European Pressphoto Agency.