AMMAN, Jordan, and BEIRUT — More than 90 people, a third of them children, were killed in what appeared to be the worst violence against civilians in Syria since a U.N.-backed cease-fire went into effect last month, the chief of the United Nations mission in Syria said Saturday.
The casualties were the victims of artillery and tank shells, the U.N. said, strongly suggesting that the government of President Bashar Assad was the likely culprit in the Friday attack.
The killings took place in the district of Houla, a collection of small towns and villages in the central province of Homs, which has been the epicenter of the 14-month rebellion against Assad.
Gruesome video posted online purported to show bloody and battered corpses, including many children.
Observers dispatched to the scene counted more than 90 bodies, Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, chief of the U.N. team in Syria, said in a statement that did not blame either side for the killings.
"Whoever started, whoever responded and whoever carried out this deplorable act of violence should be held responsible," Mood said in a statement issued in Damascus, the Syrian capital.
Opposition activists blamed the government for shelling the restive region starting Friday. The state-run news agency blamed "armed terrorists" for attacking authorities and civilians in the town of Teldo.
Each side in the Syrian conflict has repeatedly accused the other of committing "massacres' of civilians, obscuring the identity of the perpetrators in a conflict that has left at least 10,000 people dead, including civilians and security personnel. The government has limited access to foreign observers and journalists, making it hard to determine who is behind the killings.
But the confirmed death toll from Houla would seem to be another sign that the peace plan is fraying.
In a joint statement, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his predecessor, Kofi Annan, the special envoy for Syria, condemned the killings and said an investigation had confirmed that "artillery and tank shells were fired at a residential neighborhood."
That finding would seem to support opposition allegations that the Syrian government shelled the district.
"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 two U.N. officials said in a strongly worded condemnation of the incident. "Those responsible for perpetrating this crime must be held to account."
-- Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut and Rima Marrouch in Amman
Photo: Maj. Gen. General Robert Mood, the U.N. mission chief in Syria, speaks to journalists in Damascus about the deaths the day before in the Houla district. Credit: Louai Beshara / AFP/GettyImages