Facing mounting international outrage over the killing of at least 109 people in the restive town of Houla, Syria on Sunday accused rebels of carrying out the massacre, in which dozens of children were murdered.
Images of bloodied and lifeless young bodies, lain carefully side by side after the onslaught on Friday, triggered shock around the world and underlined the failure of a six-week-old U.N. ceasefire plan to stop the violence.
Syrian authorities blamed "terrorists" for the massacre, among the worst carnage in the 14-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, which has cost about 10,000 lives.
"Women, children and old men were shot dead. This is not the hallmark of the heroic Syrian army," Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdesi told reporters in Damascus.
Opposition activists said Assad's forces shelled Houla after a protest and then clashed with fighters from the Sunni Muslim-led insurgency.
Activists say Assad's shabbiha' militia, loyal to an establishment dominated by members of the minority Alawite sect, then hacked dozens of the victims to death, or shot them.
Maysara al-Hilawi said he saw the bodies of six children and their parents in a ransacked house in the town.
"The Abdelrazzak family house was the first one I entered. The children's corpses were piled on top of each other, either with their throats cut or shot at close range," Hilawi, an opposition activist, said by telephone from the area.
"I helped collect more than 100 bodies in the last two days, mostly women and children. The last were six members of the al-Kurdi family. A father and his five kids. The mother is missing," he said.
DAMASCUS PROTESTERS SHOT DEAD
Syrian forces shot dead two men on Sunday at a protest in Damascus against the killings in Houla, opposition activists said. The men's funerals also turned into demonstrations.
Footage broadcast by activists in the Damascus suburb of Yalda showed a crowd of hundreds at one of the men's funerals shouting "the people want the downfall of the regime".
U.N. military and civilian observers counted 32 children under 10 years old among at least 92 dead in Houla on Saturday. More bodies have since been found, activists said.
The observers confirmed the use of artillery, which only Assad's forces have, but did not say how all the victims died.
The U.N. and Arab League's Syria envoy Kofi Annan and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon accused the Syrian government of using artillery in populated areas.
"This appalling and brutal crime involving indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force is a flagrant violation of international law and of the commitments of the Syrian Government to cease the use of heavy weapons in population centres and violence in all its forms," they said in a joint statement on Saturday.
Western countries and Arab states opposed to Assad put the blame for the deaths squarely on Damascus.
The Gulf Cooperation Council of Sunni-led monarchies accused Assad's soldiers of using excessive force and urged the international community to "assume its responsibilities to halt the daily bloodshed in Syria".
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton spoke of a "heinous act perpetrated by the Syrian regime against its own civilian population" in a statement on Sunday. The head of the European parliament said it could amount to a war crime.
"RULE BY MURDER"
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded that those who carried out the killings be held to account.
"The United States will work with the international community to intensify our pressure on Assad and his cronies, whose rule by murder and fear must come to an end," she said.
France said it would call a meeting of the Friends of Syria, a group of Western and Arab countries keen to see Assad removed.
Britain said it would summon Syria's envoy over the massacre and that it would call for a meeting of the U.N. Security Council in coming days.
The United Arab Emirates requested an urgent meeting of the Arab League, whose head, Nabil Elaraby, urged the U.S. Security Council to stop the killing.
But there was no immediate official word from Russia, which along with China has vetoed Security Council resolutions calling for tougher action. Russia has previously blamed both the government and Syrian rebels for causing the violence.
Former U.N. secretary-general Annan is to brief the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday and is likely to be guided on who is responsible by reports from U.N. observers in Houla.
Although the ceasefire plan negotiated by Annan has failed to stop the violence, the United Nations is nearing full deployment of a 300-strong unarmed observer force meant to monitor a truce.
The plan calls for a truce, withdrawal of troops from cities and dialogue between government and opposition.
Syria calls the revolt a "terrorist" conspiracy run from abroad, a veiled reference to Sunni Muslim Gulf powers that want to see weapons provided to the insurgents.
The United Nations has accused Assad's forces and insurgents alike of grave human rights abuses, including summary executions and torture.