Damascus // United Nations observers yesterday visited the site of a massacre near Homs in which at least 92 people were killed on Friday, one of the bloodiest single atrocities in Syria's 15-month long uprising.
General Robert Mood, the head of the UN observer mission to Syria, confirmed his team had counted 92 bodies during their investigation and that tank shells had been used in the assault. More than 32 of those killed were children under the age of 10.
"The observers confirmed from examination of ordinances the use of artillery tank shells," he said. "Whoever started, whoever responded and whoever carried out this deplorable act of violence should be held responsible."
Opposition activists said almost 100 civilians had died on Friday in artillery attacks by government forces on the town of Hula, 40km west of Homs city.
According to one version of events, pro-regime thugs, known as shabbiheh, stormed residential areas after the bombardment, stabbing and shooting people to death.
As details of the killings emerged yesterday, and international condemnation grew, Syrian state media issued its own version of what transpired. Although it confirmed a "massacre" had taken place - both pro and anti-regime factions agreed there had been a slaughter - officials said "terrorists" were responsible, not its own forces.
Syrian state television aired some of the same footage that anti-regime activists had earlier posted on the internet, documenting in gruesome detail some of the corpses of children.
But the government's version said the killers had burnt and blown up homes to mimic the impact of an artillery barrage, so as to falsely implicate the authorities. State media said the attack had been staged to subvert a faltering UN-sponsored ceasefire agreement, brokered by the special envoy Kofi Annan. Mr Annan is expected to visit Syria soon in an effort to revive the flagging April 12 peace deal that has failed to halt the bloodshed.
"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," state-run media said.
Diametrically opposite explanations of the same event, offered by the regime and its opponents, have become a common feature of a wider propaganda war, mirroring a deepening, highly polarised conflict on the ground in which more than 9,000 people have been killed since last March.
However, while independent verification of facts has proven difficult in previous incidents, on this occasion the deployment of UN observers meant they were able visit the scene within hours of the killings, carrying with it the prospect of an impartial evaluation of what really happened.
UN observers passed no public verdict on who was responsible for the killings yesterday evening, although only government forces are equipped with tanks. Gen Mood described the killings as a "brutal tragedy".
"Those using violence for their own agendas will create more instability, more unpredictability and may lead country to civil war," he told reporters in Damascus.
Some media reports on the Hula killings suggested sectarian motives at work. The area where the massacre occurred is home to members of Syria's Sunni majority while, according to one activist from the area, quoted by the Associated Press, the shabbiheh committing at least some of the murders were drawn from nearby Alawite villages.
Sectarian violence between Alawite and Sunnis has taken place, particularly in some parts of Homs, yet the struggle for Syria cannot simply be drawn along sectarian lines.
Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian president, and much of the ruling elite are members of the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shia Islam, but he also draws support within the Sunni majority, as well as secularists and other minority groups.
Likewise, the opposition has been strongest in mainly Sunni areas but many Alawites, Christians and Kurds have joined the cause of toppling Syria's autocratic regime.
In the wake of Hula, protests broke out across Syria, with demonstrators taking to the streets in support of the town.
The opposition Syria National Council called for a meeting of the UN Security Council and demanded action from the international community, while the rebel Free Syrian Army warned it would no longer honour a commitment to the Annan peace plan, unless violence by regime forces stopped.
Also yesterday, Najib Mikati, Lebanon's prime minister, said a planned visit to Turkey to meet freed Lebanese hostages had been postponed because their widely reported release had not yet happened.
On Friday, the Lebanese health minister, Ali Hassan Khalil, said the 11 men abducted in northern Syria days ago had arrived in Turkey, which was later denied by Turkish diplomatic sources, according to the AFP news agency.