At least 32 children and more than 60 adults were killed in fighting in the centre of Syria yesterday, the head of the UN observer team in the country said tonight.
General Robert Mood condemned the attack in Houla, northwest of Homs, as a “brutal tragedy” but did not identify who was responsible for the killing.
UN observers found artillery tank shells at the site of the fighting, he said.
Activists said government troops shelled villages in central Syria before pro-regime thugs swept through the area and shot at people in the streets and in their homes, killing more than 90 people – 32 of them children under the age of 10.
Gen Mood said “whoever started, whoever responded, and whoever carried out this deplorable act of violence, should be held responsible”.
The latest death toll is one of the highest for any single event since the popular uprising against Bashar Assad began in March 2011.
The UN says more than 9,000 people have been killed, most of them civilians.
Later several videos posted online showed rows of dead children lying in a mosque in bloody shorts and T-shirts with gaping head wounds, haunting images of what activists called one of the deadliest regime attacks yet in Syria's 14-month-old uprising.
The attacks sparked outrage among international leaders, anti-regime groups and large protests in Syria, including the suburbs of the capital of Damascus and its largest city, Aleppo. It also renewed fears of the relevance of a month-old international peace plan that has not stopped almost daily violence.
More than a dozen amateur videos gave glimpses of the carnage, showing lines of bodies laid out in simple rooms.
Another video showed a mass grave, four bodies wide and dozens of yards long.
Activists from Houla said that regime forces peppered the area with mortars after large demonstrations against the regime of President Assad the day before. That evening, they said, pro-regime fighters known as shabiha stormed the villages, gunning down men in the streets and stabbing women and children in their homes.
A local activist reached via Skype said regime forces fired shells at Houla, about 25 miles northwest of Homs. The shabiha entered villages, raiding homes and shooting at civilians, Abu Yazan said. More than 100 people were killed, more than 40 of them children and most of them in the village of Taldaw, he said. Many had stab wounds, another activist said.
“They killed entire families, from parents on down to children, but they focused on the children,” Yazan said.
The grisly images sparked outage both from anti-regime groups and political leaders around the world.
“With these new crimes, this murderous regime pushes Syria further into horror and threatens regional stability,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in a statement Saturday.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights released an unusually harsh statement, saying Arab nations and the international community were “partners” in the killing “because of their silence about the massacres that the Syrian regime has committed.”
The Syrian government blamed the killings on “armed terrorist groups” – a term it often uses for the opposition – but provided no details or death toll.
UN observers, among more than 250 who were dispatched in recent weeks to salvage the ceasefire plan, visited the site of the killings today.
The attack is yet another blow to the international peace plan brokered by envoy Kofi Annan and cast a pall over his coming visit to check on the plan’s progress. The ceasefire between forces loyal to the regime of Assad and rebels seeking to topple it was supposed to start on April 12 but has never really taken hold, with new killings every day.
The UN put the death toll weeks ago at more than 9,000. Hundreds have been killed since.
The Houla villages are Sunni Muslim. The forces came from an arc of nearby villages populated by Alawites, members of the offshoot of Shiite Islam to which Assad belongs, the activists said.
The activists said the Houla killings appeared to be sectarian between the two groups, raising fears that Syria’s uprising, which started in March 2011 with protests calling for political reform, is edging closer to the type of war that tore apart Syria’s eastern neighbour, Iraq.
“I don’t like to talk about sectarianism, but it was clear that this was sectarian hatred,” said activist Abu Walid.
Syrian state TV condemned the opposition groups for the “massacre” in a statement.
“The armed groups are escalating their massacres against the Syrian people only days before international envoy Kofi Annan’s visit in a bid to defeat his plan and a political solution to the crisis and with the aim of exploiting the blood of Syrians in the media bazar,” it said.
The White House said it was horrified by the brutal attack.
National Security Council spokeswoman Erin Pelton said the attack serves as a “vile testament to an illegitimate regime” of Assad.
The White House said the Syrian regime is responding to peaceful political protest with “unspeakable and inhuman brutality”.