Syria said on Thursday a preliminary investigation showed that anti-government armed groups committed a massacre last week in al-Houla, in which 108 people were killed, with the aim of encouraging foreign military intervention against the Syrian government.
The Syrian explanation was slammed by Washington as “blatant lie” as a newspaper report pointed out that the ‘shoes’ worn by the attackers might give a clue to their identity.
Meanwhile, as many as 63 people have been killed by the gunfire of Syrian forces on Thursday, Al Arabiya reported citing Syrian activists at the Local Coordination Committees.
Brigadier General Qassem Jamal Suleiman, head of the investigation committee formed by the government, said the victims were families “who refused to oppose the government and were at odds with the armed groups.”
He said many of the victims were relatives of a member of the Syrian parliament, according to Reuters.
There are five army posts in al-Houla, and the aim of the operation was to “eliminate the presence of the government totally and turn it into a region out of government control,” Jamaleddine told a press conference in Damascus.
“Our reaction to the Syrian characterization of what transpired in Houla, I think quite simply it’s another blatant lie,” U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice said.
U.N. monitors said that some of the victims in al-Houla, which included 49 children and 34 women, had been killed by shelling, but that most had been summarily executed.
“Killing children does not meet any goal of the government but those of the armed groups,” the general said.
He insisted that regular troops did not enter the area before or after attack, according to AFP.
“During clashes between troops and armed terrorist groups, the regular troops did not leave their positions but defended themselves, from their positions.”
Meanwhile, a report published by the Financial Times on Thursday said that the men who stormed one of the houses in al-Houla were dressed like soldiers except for the fact that “they wore white shoes,” according to a 10-year-old witness.
According to the newspaper report, the boy was hidden in a nearby barn as he watched the thugs leaving the house after shooting dead his 13-year-old friend, who was standing across the street.
The newspaper report cited Nadim Houry, of Human Rights Watch, as saying the running shoes were one of the details mentioned by witnesses as evidence that the people who carried out the attacks were not soldiers, but members of the much-feared ‘shabbiha’.
“With the regime basically relinquishing control over some rural areas, it’s easier to send in the ‘shabbiha’ than it is to send in the regular army,” Emile Hokayem, an analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, was quoted by the Financial Times as saying. “They are a better tool for retribution — and you are going to see them operating in the country a lot more.”
The mass killing in al-Houla has produced symbolic responses, such as the ejection of top Syrian diplomats from Western capitals.
According to U.N. estimates, most of the victims died in their homes and entire families were summarily executed by gunmen at close range, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had said, citing witnesses and survivors.
The U.N. said pro-government ‘shabbiha’ were responsible for the slaughter, a version supported by the U.S. and European nations on the Security Council.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous has said there was a “strong suspicion that the ‘shabbiha’ were involved in this tragedy in al-Houla,” referring to a militia loyal to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Assad’s ally Russia continues to say the circumstances remain unclear and it is waiting for an investigation to be completed.
Russia routinely brings up the specter of al-Qaeda to deflect responsibility for violence from forces loyal to Assad, as well as warning against the risk of outside military intervention every time Western powers suggest further steps to challenge Assad’s non-compliance.