Reuters/Shaam News Network/Han
The U.N. Security Council met Sunday afternoon to discuss Friday's massacre in the Syrian town of Houla, which the United Nations has blamed on the Syrian government but Damascus and Moscow suggested was due to a rebel attack.
At least 116 people, including many children, were killed in the Houla attack, the head of the U.N. observer mission in Syria, Norwegian Gen. Robert Mood, told the 15-nation council, a diplomat who was in the closed-door meeting told Reuters. The diplomat on condition of anonymity.
Russian Deputy U.N. Ambassador Alexander Pankin told reporters Moscow was skeptical about suggestions that the government was behind the massacre, saying it appeared most of the victims were killed with knives or shot at point-blank range.
British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant disagreed.
It seems quite clear that the massacre in Houla was caused by heavy bombardment, by government artillery and tanks, Lyall Grant said ahead of the meeting.
Diplomats said they hoped to agree on some kind of condemnation of the massacre, though Russia was clearly at odds with the Western powers regarding who was to blame.
The emergency council meeting was called after Russia rejected a French and British proposal for a statement condemning the massacre, diplomats said on condition of anonymity.
Moscow, which remains a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, told other members of the 15-nation council that it wanted briefing from Mood before agreeing to a statement, envoys said.
Mood spoke to the Security Council via a videolink from Damascus.
Earlier, Mood told the BBC that the circumstances leading to the killing are still unclear but are being investigated by U.N. monitors in Houla.
He said that some people had been killed by tank shells, others at close range.
He also said that more than 34 children had now been confirmed as having died in Houla - up from the previous figure of 32.
Earlier Sunday, facing growing world outrage over the killing of at least 109 people, the Assad regime accused rebels of carrying out the massacre.
Syrian forces shot dead two men on Sunday at a protest in Damascus against the killings in Houla, opposition activists told Reuters. The men's funerals also turned into demonstrations.
Footage broadcast by activists in the Damascus suburb of Yalda showed a crowd of hundreds at one of the men's funerals shouting the people want the downfall of the regime.
In other violence Sunday, government troops shelled residential neighborhoods in the central city of Hama and the rebel-held town of Rastan north of Homs, the Local Coordination Committees and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told the Associated Press.
Images of bloodied and lifeless young bodies, lain carefully side by side after the killings in Houla on Friday, triggered shock around the globe and underlined the failure of a six-week-old U.N. ceasefire plan to stop the violence.
Syrian authorities blamed terrorists for the massacre, Reuters reported. The slaughter is among the worst carnage in the 14-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, which has cost about 10,000 lives.
Women, children and old men were shot dead. This is not the hallmark of the heroic Syrian army, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdesi told reporters in Damascus. We completely deny responsibility for this terrorist massacre against our people.
Opposition activists said Assad's forces shelled the town of Houla after a protest and then skirmishes between troops and fighters from the Sunni Muslim-led insurgency.
Activists say Assad's shabbiha militia, loyal to an establishment dominated by members of the minority Alawite sect, then hacked dozens of the victims to death, or shot them at close range. There are several Alawite villages outside Houla, a mostly Sunni town.
U.N. military and civilian observers counted 32 children under 10 among at least 92 dead on Saturday. More bodies have since been found, activists said. The observers confirmed the use of artillery, which only Assad's forces have, but did not say how all the victims died.
Maysara al-Hilawi of Houla told Reuters he saw the bodies of six children and their parents in one ransacked house.
The Abdelrazzak family house was the first one I entered. The children's corpses were piled on top of each other, either with their throats cut or shot at close range, Hilawi, an opposition activist, said by telephone from the area.
I helped collect more than 100 bodies in the last two days, mostly women and children. The last were six members of the al-Kurdi family. A father and his five kids. The mother is missing, he said.
The rebel Free Syrian Army, the loose federation of armed militias across the country, issued a statement saying it was no longer committed to the United Nations truce plan because it was just buying time for the government to kill civilians and destroy cities and villages.
We won't allow truce after truce, which prolongs the crisis for years, the statement said
Western countries and Arab states opposed to Assad put the blame squarely on Damascus.
The Gulf Cooperation Council of Sunni-led monarchies accused Assad's soldiers of using excessive force and urged the international community to assume its responsibilities to halt the daily bloodshed in Syria.
Kuwait, which currently heads the Arab League, announced it is calling for an Arab ministerial meeting that aims to take steps to put an end to the oppressive practices against the Syrian people, the Associated Press reported.
An unnamed Foreign Ministry official was quoted by Kuwait's official news agency, KUNA, as condemning the attack in Houla and blaming regime forces for the ugly crime. The official said Kuwait is making contacts so that the international community can assume its responsibilities to stop the shedding of Syrian brothers' blood.
Late Saturday, Foreign Minister Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates condemned the killings in Houla and also called for an urgent meeting of the Arab League.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton spoke of a heinous act perpetrated by the Syrian regime against its own civilian population in a statement on Sunday. The head of the European parliament said it could amount to a war crime.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded that those who carried out the killings be held to account.
The United States will work with the international community to intensify our pressure on Assad and his cronies, whose rule by murder and fear must come to an end, she said.
Assad's close ally in Lebanon, the Shiite Hezbollah movement, said Sunday it strongly condemns the massacre and deplores those who carried it out -- without saying who that was.
France said it would call a meeting of the Friends of Syria, a group of Western and Arab countries keen to see Assad removed.
Britain said it would summon Syria's envoy over the massacre and that it would call for a meeting of the U.N. Security Council in coming days.
The United Arab Emirates requested an urgent meeting of the Arab League, whose head, Nabil Elaraby, urged the U.S. Security Council to stop the killing.
In its report, the United Nations statement stopped short of accusing the government of responsibility for the entire toll.
Mood, the head of the United Nations observer mission in Syria, said in a statement that the killing of innocent children and civilians needs to stop, but added that the circumstances behind all the deaths remained unclear.
Although the ceasefire plan negotiated by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has failed to stop the violence, the United Nations is nearing full deployment of a 300-strong unarmed observer force meant to monitor a truce.
The plan calls for a truce, withdrawal of troops from cities and dialogue between the government and opposition.