BEIRUT (AP) — The U.N.'s human rights office said Tuesday that most of the 108 victims of a massacre in Syria last week were shot at close range, some of them women, children and entire families gunned down in their own homes.
The massacre on Friday in Houla drew new international outrage, with more than half a dozen countries including France and Britain expelling Syrian diplomats in protest in what the White House said was a sign of their "absolute disgust" with Assad's rule.
Still, spokesman Jay Carney said the White House remains opposed to military action in Syria, reasoning that would only lead to more carnage.
The U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous also said there are strong suspicions that pro-government fighters were responsible for some of the killings.
"We are at a tipping point," special envoy Kofi Annan told reporters Tuesday in Damascus, following a meeting with President Bashar Assad. "The Syrian people do not want the future to be one of bloodshed and division."
He called on the government and the armed opposition to stop all violence.
The U.N. report indicated that most of the dead were killed execution-style, with fewer than 20 people cut down by regime shelling. The U.N. cited survivors and witnesses blaming the house-to-house killings on pro-government thugs known as shabiha, who often operate as hired muscle for the regime.
"What is very clear is this was an absolutely abominable event that took place in Houla, and at least a substantial part of it was summary executions of civilians, women and children," said Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. High commissioner for Human Rights. "At this point, it looks like entire families were shot in their houses."
Houla activists reached by Skype said government troops shelled the area after anti-government protests on Friday and clashed with local rebels. Later, shabiha from nearby villages swept through the area, stabbing residents and shooting them at close range.
Videos posted online by anti-regime activists show explosions in Houla, dismembered bodies lying in the streets, then row upon row of the dead laid out before being buried in a mass grave. Some of the videos showed dozens of dead children, some with gaping wounds.
The Syrian regime has denied any role in the massacre, blaming the killings on "armed terrorists" who attacked army positions in the area and slaughtered innocent civilians. But it has provided no evidence to support its narrative nor has it given a death toll.
U.N. investigators have said they found tank and artillery shells in Houla after the attack, but stopped short of blaming regime forces for the killings.
The U.N. said that at least 108 people, including 34 women and 49 children, were killed in the attack that began on Friday and continued through the night on a group of poor farming villages northwest of the central city of Homs.
Speaking to reporters in Geneva, Colville said U.N. monitors who visited the area found that fewer than 20 of the dead were killed by artillery fire. The rest appeared to have been shot at close range.
He said information from U.N. investigators and other sources indicated that many of the victims were killed in the Houla village of Taldaw in two separate incidents. Local residents blamed the killings on pro-regime militias known as shabiha, which sometimes act "in concert" with government forces, he said.
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