BEIRUT -- The U.N. Security Council on Sunday blamed Syrian government forces for artillery and tank shelling of residential areas in Houla as officials from the world body raised their estimate of the death toll in the Friday fighting in the town to 108, including 49 children.
"The members of the Security Council condemned in the strongest possible terms the killings, confirmed by United Nations observers, of dozens of men, women and children and the wounding of hundreds more in the village of Houla, near Homs, in attacks that involved a series of government artillery and tank shellings on a residential neighborhood," the Security Council said in a statement released to the media following a special session in New York on Sunday.
The council members also condemned the killing of civilians by shooting at close range and demanded that Syrian forces "immediately cease the use of heavy weapons in population centers and immediately pull back its troops and its heavy weapons from in and around population centers and return them to their barracks.
Amateur footage of the bloodied corpses of the children have prompted international condemnation of the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Several nations, including Britain and France, had reportedly pushed for a statement that would condemn the Syrian government as causing the deaths during a Friday barrage of artillery and tank shells. But Russia, a longtime ally of Assad's government, first demanded an update from U.N. officials in Syria. Russian officials have noted that some of the victims in Houla reportedly died of small-arms fire and knife wounds, not from government shelling.
Earlier in the day Syrian officials had denied responsibility for a weekend massacre, with a Foreign Ministry spokesman saying that Syria “categorically denies the government forces’ responsibility for the massacre.” Speaking to reporters in Damascus, spokesman Jihad 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 massacre has raised new questions about the effectiveness of the peace plan brokered by Kofi Annan, a former U.N. secretary-general who now serves as a special envoy on Syria for the world body and the Arab League. More than 250 U.N. observers are in Syria, but a U.N. contingent arrived in Houla only on Saturday, after the killing was done.
The slayings were the worst act of violence in Syria since the U.N.-backed peace plan and cease-fire went into effect more than six weeks ago. Fighting has continued despite the truce, though there have been several lulls. Other parts of the peace plan, including negotiations between the two sides, have yet to begin.
--Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: A photo released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency shows Syrians gathering around U.N. observers during a visit Friday to a rural district outside Damascus. Credit: Syrian Arab News Agency