Syrian officials said their investigation has shown that rebels were to blame for the massacre of more than 100 people in the township of Houla, countering witnesses who spoke to Western media and U.N. statements that the killings were probably the work of forces sympathetic to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The slayings of scores of women and children last week in Houla outraged the world and renewed calls to put a stop to the violence in Syria. The government denied responsibility and said it would investigate and prosecute the people behind the killings.
Though Syrian authorities cautioned that their investigation was still underway, Brig. Gen. Qassem Jamal Suleiman announced Thursday that initial findings were that 600 to 800 gunmen from “armed terrorist groups” had carried out the Houla killings while trying to attack law enforcement, according to Syrian state media. The Syrian government routinely refers to armed rebels as terrorists.
According to the report, all of the victims were families opposed to the terrorists and “who wouldn’t stand up to the state and had never joined protests or held up arms,” the Syrian Arab News Agency said.
SANA quoted Suleiman as saying the massacre was meant to target relatives of a Syrian member of parliament "before the events ran contrary to the plan and the massacre extended to slaughter other families." Syrian forces had not entered the area where the massacre occurred, according to the Syrian investigation.
“There are people in dark rooms working night and day to target Syria ... and the way to do it is to ignite civil strife,”the Associated Press quoted Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi as saying at the Thursday news conference. “They will not succeed.”
Though Syrian authorities said they drew their conclusions from witnesses, others who saw the attacks have told Western media and human rights groups that armed gangs loyal to Assad perpetrated the attacks. The U.N. peacekeeping chief said this week that the government was definitely responsible for some of the killings and there was strong suspicions that the rest were the work of allied militias.
"Syria regime says the opposition is responsible for the massacre in Houla. Another blatant lie," United States Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice wrote on Twitter on Thursday.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Brig. Gen. Qassem Jamal Suleiman, head of the commission appointed by Damascus to investigate the Houla massacre, speaks during a news conference in Damascus on Thursday. Credit: Youssef Badawi / European Pressphoto Agency