Horrified Hillary Clinton said Bashar Assad’s “rule by murder and fear” must end after dozens of children were massacred in one of the Syrian regime’s deadliest attacks in the country’s 14-month-old uprising.
The US secretary of state’s condemnation came after gruesome video showed rows of dead Syrian children lying in a mosque.
The shelling attack on Houla, a group of villages north west of the central city of Homs, killed more than 90 people, including at least 32 children under 10, the head of the United Nations observer team in Syria said.
The attacks sparked outrage from US and other world leaders, and large protests in the suburbs of Syria’s 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 the almost-daily violence.
The Arab League is to hold an emergency meeting following the killings.
Mrs Clinton demanded that “those who perpetrated this atrocity must be identified and 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 last night.
The UN denounced the attacks in a statement that appeared to hold President Assad’s regime responsible and the White House called the violence acts of “unspeakable and inhuman brutality”.
“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 centres and violence in all its forms,” said UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon and international envoy Kofi Annan.
“Those responsible for perpetrating this crime must be held to account.”
More than a dozen amateur videos posted online yesterday gave glimpses of the carnage, showing lines of bodies laid out in simple rooms, many with bloody faces, torsos and limbs. In some places, residents put chunks of ice on the bodies to preserve them until burial.
One two-minute video shows at least a dozen children lined up shoulder to shoulder on a blanket on what appears to be the floor of a mosque.
Another video showed a mass grave, four bodies wide and dozens of yards long.
Activists from Houla said regime forces peppered the area with mortars after large demonstrations against the regime on Friday. 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.
Local activist Abu Yazan, reached via Skype, said: “They killed entire families, from parents on down to children, but they focused on the children.”
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.
The US was “horrified” by the Houla attacks, National Security Council spokeswoman Erin Pelton said.
“These acts serve as a vile testament to an illegitimate regime that responds to peaceful political protest with unspeakable and inhuman brutality.”
UN observers, among more than 250 dispatched in recent weeks to salvage the ceasefire plan, found spent artillery tank shells at the site yesterday and UN officials confirmed they were fired at residential areas.
The head of the team, Maj Gen Robert Mood, called the attack a “brutal tragedy”.
The bloodshed is yet another blow to the international peace plan brokered by Mr 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 grisly images were condemned by 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.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 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 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.