The U.N. Security Council is condemning the Syrian government for the massacre of scores of people, including children, in the town of Houla, a day after images of the mass killings shocked the world.
"The Security Council condemned in the strongest possible terms the killings, confirmed by United Nations observers, of dozens of men, women and children and the wounding of hundreds more in the village of (Houla), near Homs, in attacks that involved a series of government artillery and tank shellings on a residential neighborhood," the Security Council said in a nonbinding statement read out at the end of a three-hour meeting on Sunday.
The U.N. says at least 108 people, including 49 children and 34 women, died in Houla.
The New York Times reports that the Security Council action is the strongest allowed by Russia, a permanent, veto-wielding member of the body, which has blocked past attempted to condemn President Bashar Assad's regime.
Images of the killings shocked the world when they were released on Saturday. As the Two-Way's Eyder Peralta reported yesterday, "it's hard to look at" them.
"They show the bloodied bodies of dozens of children strewn on the floors of morgues. Some of them are just babies, their gazes frozen, still wearing the outfits they had on when they were killed by government forces," he wrote. "In one image, there are so many dead children on a single rug, their limbs are overlapping. One of them is a little girl covered in blood. She's wearing a pink shirt dress with a yellow duckling."
Syria is denying it is behind the killings.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said Sunday that Syrian security forces were in their bases when they were attacked Friday by gunmen armed with mortars, machine guns and anti-tank missiles. He said that in the nine-hour battle that followed, three soldiers were killed and 16 wounded.
"No Syrian tank or artillery entered this place where the massacres were committed," he said, according to The Associated Press. "The security forces did not leave their places because they were in a state of self-defense."
According to the AP:
"He blamed the gunmen for what he called a 'terrorist massacre' in Houla and accused the media, Western officials and others of spinning a 'tsunami of lies' to justify foreign intervention in Syria."
But NPR's Kelly McEvers, who is reporting from the Lebanese capital, Beirut, had this to say on Sunday's weekends on All Things Considered:
"After midday prayers, residents of Houla went to the streets to protest. They say the army began shelling the protest from afar, and several people were killed. A group of rebels in the town who are known loosely as the Free Syrian Army fought back. They reportedly attacked Syrian army soldiers."
Sunday's nonbinding Security Council statement came after divisions among the body's members on how to proceed.
The AP reported:
"Britain and France had proposed issuing a press statement condemning the attack and pointing a finger at the Syrian government, but Russia told Security Council members it could not agree and wanted a briefing first by Norwegian Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, the head of the U.N. observer team in the country."
Britain, China, France, Russia and the U.S. make up the five permanent, veto-wielding members of the Security Council. Russia and China oppose strong international action against Assad's regime.
As McEvers' reporting says, the violence continued Saturday:
"In [a] ... video posted online by Syrian activists, a woman says the shelling resumed around two in the morning," she reported. "Many people were killed when their houses collapsed on them."
A second woman says the attack became worse, McEvers reported. Pro-government militias known as shabiha, derived from the word ghost, began going house to house, the second woman said.
"They knocked and asked who is in the house," she said. "I said there are no men here. Then they started shooting. I lost seven grandchildren. Then they burned our houses."
McEvers notes that the videos could not be independently verified.
The area of Houla is comprised of Sunni villages and Allawtie villages. Allawites support Assad's regime, which is made up of members of the community. Sunnis oppose the regime. The villages are near the city of Homs, scene of the worst sectarian fighting since the Syrian uprising began last year.
"Some activists suggested to NPR the house-to-house massacres of Sunni families was revenge for the killing of Allawites. But this could not be independently confirmed. Either way, what happened in Houla was the largest number of killings in one single incident since the Syrian uprising began."
The U.N. estimates that 9,000 people have been killed since the uprising against the Assad regime began about 14 months ago. Since then, the international community has attempted to negotiate a cease-fire, but all of them — including the latest one brokered by international peace envoy Kofi Annan — have fallen short.