DAMASCUS // Amid growing international pressure and rising domestic tension, the Syrian government yesterday "categorically denied" responsibility for Friday's massacre of at least 92 people in Hula, blaming "terrorists" for the attack.
Jihad Makdissi, a Syrian foreign ministry official, told reporters in Damascus that no army tanks or artillery had been in the vicinity of Hula at the time of the assault.
UN military observers who inspected the scene said tank and artillery shells had been shot into the residential neighbourhood. Although the monitors have so far stopped short of publicly placing blame, only government forces are equipped with such heavy weapons in Syria.
Thirty two children under the age of 10 were among those killed in the attack, according to the UN monitoring team.
The UN Security Council scheduled an emergency session last night to discuss the killing. Diplomats said Russia blocked a strong statement condemning the massacre, insisting on a briefing from the head of the observer mission first.
On Saturday, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, called the attack an "appalling and brutal crime" and a violation of promises by the Syrian government to stop using heavy weapons in population centres. He said those responsible must be held accountable.
Mr Makdissi responded yesterday, promising a complete investigation would be done within three days by a military judicial committee, but he immediately ruled out finding government forces were complicit saying they were "not at all" involved.
"Women, children and old men were shot dead. This is not the hallmark of the heroic Syrian army," he said, dismissing claims to the contrary as part of a "tsunami of lies".
Regime forces had acted only in self-defence and in the defence of the Syrian people, Mr Makdissi said, after "hundreds of heavily armed gunmen carrying machine guns, mortars and anti-tank missiles" had launched attacks against government positions.
Activists and residents of Hula say regime forces attacked the opposition-held area with artillery, and then sent in militia units to kill survivors.
Since the start of the uprising in March last year, Syrian officials have made repeated pledges to investigate allegations of killings by security forces. No findings have been announced and Syrian lawyers say no legal action has been taken against any security personnel.
Human-rights groups, activists and foreign journalists have documented use of heavy weapons on residential areas - most notably the Bab Amr district of Homs. But the Hula massacre is the first time it has been confirmed by independent military experts from the UN, giving the incident added diplomatic weight and fuelling international outcry.
Kofi Annan, the UN special envoy to Syria and architect of a faltering peace agreement, is to brief the Security Council on Wednesday. Before then, Mr Annan is expected in Damascus for talks.
Since the Annan peace plan was to go into effect on April 12, the deal, supported by the Syrian government and rebel Free Syrian Army, has failed to take hold with bloodshed continuing largely unabated.
The presence of almost 300 UN observers, tasked with monitoring implementation of the ceasefire deal, has done little to blunt the violence.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an NGO monitoring the conflict, said yesterday more than 13,000 people had been killed since March of 2011.
A majority - 9,183 - are civilians, 3,072 are regime troops and 749 are army defectors, the group said.
Since the Hula killings, demonstrations have swept across Syria and in anticipation of protests security forces were heavily in evidence in Damascus and the surrounding countryside yesterday.
A rush hour demonstration in the city centre, at a busy intersection next to the Italian Hospital, was broken up within seconds by security forces who fired automatic weapons, prompting scenes of panic as people fled or sought shelter in shops.
There were no immediate reports of casualties from that protest, but elsewhere at least eight people were killed, activists said, including four in Nahar Aisha, a neighbourhood on the southern edge of Damascus heavily involved in the uprising.
* With additional reporting by the Associateed Press and Reuters