The main rebel group in Syria has said that it will not respect the cease-fire agreement if the UN doesn't act to protect civilians. The Syrian government, meanwhile, has blamed the massacre in Houla on terrorists.
The United Nations Security Council held an emergency meeting in New York on Sunday to discuss the situation in Syria.
The head of the team of UN monitors in the country, Norwegian Major General Robert Mood told the Council via a video-link from Damascus that the death toll from Friday’s massacre in the town of Houla had climbed to 108 with 300 others injured. He said deaths had been caused by "shrapnel" and gunfire at "point-blank" range.
A letter from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to the Council and obtained by the Reuters news agency said members of Mood’s team had also confirmed that artillery and tank shells had been fired into a residential area in Houla. Ban said UN observers had "viewed the bodies of the dead and confirmed from an examination of ordnance that artillery and tank shells were fired at a residential neighborhood."
News of the massacre sparked an international outcry. The European Union’s foreign policy coordinator, Catherine Ashton, issued a statement on Sunday in which she described the massacre as a "heinous act perpetrated by the Syrian regime against its own civilian population.”
A White House spokesman said the US was particularly horrified by the reports of attacks on women and children in Houla.
"These acts serve as a vile testament to an illegitimate regime that responds to peaceful political protest with unspeakable and inhuman brutality," the spokesman said.
Russia holds back
Permanent Security Council member Russia cast doubt, however, on whether forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were actually responsible for the massacre.
"We need to establish whether it was the Syrian authorities, Russia’s deputy ambassador to the UN, Igor Pankin said.
The Syrian government denied responsibility for the massacre in Houla, blaming terrorist groups for the violence.
"Terrorist groups from al Qaeda committed two heinous massacres against families in the countryside of Homs," the state news agency SANA said, quoting an unnamed official in the area.
Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad al-Makdissi, meanwhile, said that targeting defenseless civilians "was not the hallmark of the heroic Syrian army," promising a full investigation.
"We completely deny responsibility for this terrorist massacre against our people," Makdissi told a news conference.
"We have set up a military and legal committee to investigate," he said. "The results will emerge within days."
The Gulf nation of Kuwait, meanwhile, began organizing an Arab League meeting to "take steps to put an end to the oppressive practices against the Syrian people."
Free Syrian Army issues warning
Earlier, the main rebel group, the Free Syrian Army warned that unless the Security Council takes concrete action to protect civilians from government violence, it will no longer be bound by the internationally brokered cease-fire agreement.
The Free Syrian Army said in a statement that killings were "taking place under the eyes of the UN observers," and it urged the international community to "announce the failure of the Annan plan."
"Annan's plan is going to hell," the group said in its release. Arab League-UN special envoy Kofi Annan brokered the agreement, which went into effect on April 12. It has been violated on a regular basis by rebel groups and the Syrian government since then.
The rebel group's warning came amid renewed violence, with government forces reportedly targeting the opposition stronghold of Rastan with artillery and subjecting the central city of Hama to machinegun fire. Rebel forces retreated to Rastan earlier this year to escape a government military offensive against the city of Homs.
A bomb blast also hit a government security vehicle in the upscale Damascus suburb of Mazzeh on Sunday, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the activist Local Coordination Committees (LCC). The two groups reported that several security personnel were injured in the blast without giving further details.
slk,pfd/ccp (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)