Demonstrators protest in front of the Syrian Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey,… (Bulent Kilic, AFP/Getty…)
BEIRUT — The U.N. Security Council on Sunday condemned Syrian army artillery and tank barrages on a civilian neighborhood where 108 people, most of them women and children, were killed, suggesting in a carefully worded statement that government forces were largely responsible.
As international outrage escalated, some viewed the carnage as a possible turning point in the conflict. The government and opposition groups exchanged blame for the massacre Friday in the township of Houla in western Homs province.
The Security Council, meeting in an emergency session, said the "outrageous use of force against [the] civilian population" is a violation of a U.N. peace plan. It called on the government and its opponents to end violence, the U.N. said.
The statement was approved after a lengthy discussion with Russia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Russia, which holds a veto and has thwarted any U.N.-backed international intervention in Syria, gave its assent to a statement that distanced the Syrian government from the killings of those in Houla who died from shooting at close range or as a result of "severe physical abuse."
The U.N. said a new count indicated that 108 people were killed in Houla, including 49 children and 34 women. How many died from government shelling and how many perished from other causes was not clear.
The Security Council statement called on Syria to "immediately cease the use of heavy weapons in population centers and immediately pull back its troops and its heavy weapons from in and around population centers and return them to their barracks."
Those actions were required by last month's peace plan, but apparently have never been implemented.
Sunday's Security Council statement, though not specifically laying blame for the massacre, established a more direct link between government shelling and the civilian deaths than a U.N. statement issued Saturday. The statement Sunday said dozens were killed and hundreds wounded "in attacks that involved a series of government artillery and tank shellings on a residential neighborhood."
The fallout from the massacre, observers said, may show whether the Kremlin intends to remain loyal to its Syrian ally, or whether it is tiring of Assad and may consider some kind of internationally brokered political transition in Syria.
"This will give us a good indication of what it will take to turn the Russians," said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Grainy video of lifeless and bloodied children strewn about like discarded rag dolls was quickly becoming an iconic image of Syria's unchecked brutality. But the slaughter was also a testament to the ambiguity that has clouded the conflict.
And it generated new skepticism about the U.N. peace mission led by Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general who is the envoy for the U.N. and Arab League for Syria. More than 250 U.N. observers are in place in Syria, but a contingent showed up in Houla only hours after the killings had ceased.
Annan was scheduled to head to Syria this week.
The opposition alleged that the deaths were the result of government shelling and a subsequent onslaught by troops and pro-regime militiamen, some of whom allegedly used bayonets and knives to finish off their victims.
But the Syrian government on Sunday issued a vigorous denial, contending that its forces in Houla were in a "defensive mode" when attacked by heavily armed "terrorists" in the district where the massacre took place
The Syrian government "categorically denies the government forces' responsibility for the massacre," Jihad Makdissi, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, told reporters in Damascus. The spokesman also denounced the "tsunami of lies" alleging a government blood bath and said an inquiry into the incident would be completed in three days.
The government says armed men attacked security forces in Houla on Friday, alleging that "terrorists" — its usual label for antigovernment rebels — carried out the massacre in a bid to discredit Syrian forces and sabotage the U.N. peace plan.
The victims in Houla were described as Sunni Muslims, who make up a majority of Syria's population and are the driving force behind the rebellion against Assad. The president and many of his top security and military chiefs are members of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
The opposition has charged that militiamen from nearby Alawite villages may have participated in the Houla killings, escalating sectarian tensions.
"There is now great concern about the issue of retaliation: How long will people refrain from retaliating in kind?" said Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group think tank. "This sharpens the sense among people elsewhere in Syria that this is on the verge of spinning out of control."
There was no public indication that Moscow's support for Assad had diminished.
Russia's leaders remain bitter about how, in the Kremlin's view, they were misled last year about a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing foreign intervention in Libya. The vote became the legal underpinning for a Western-led bombing campaign that hastened the ouster of Moammar Kadafi. Russian diplomats have made it clear that they do not want to see a repeat of the Libya scenario in longtime ally Syria.
Special correspondent Rima Marrouch in Amman, Jordan, and Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow contributed to this report.