BEIRUT (AP) — International envoy Kofi Annan met Syrian President Bashar Assad on Tuesday following a massacre last week that killed more than 100 people and sparked widespread international condemnation against Damascus.
The U.N. has said government forces fired tank shells and artillery at the villages that make up Houla in central Syria, but stopped short of blaming them for Friday's killings. Activists said most of the victims were killed by pro-government thugs who stormed the area after clashes with local rebels, but the regime categorically denied any involvement.
The United Nations said 108 people were killed in the massacre, including 49 children and 34 women; some had bullet holes through their heads.
Annan flew into Damascus on Monday for meetings with Assad and other senior officials. He is trying to salvage a peace plan that he brokered more than six-weeks ago, but which has failed to bring a halt to more than a year of deadly violence. Syria's state news agency said Annan was meeting with Assad Tuesday but gave no details.
Activists say more than 13,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011. The U.N. put the toll as of March 2012 at 9,000 but the count is out of date as many hundreds more have died since.
The Houla killings have drawn fresh attention to the Syrian conflict, in part because of the brutality of the massacre. Activists posted amateur videos online showing shells exploding in the village, dismembered bodies lying in the streets, then rows of dozens of dead laid out before being buried in a mass grave.
Assad's regime has denied any role in the killings, blaming them 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.
"It is irrational that any party who wants to make Annan's mission a success would ever commit such a massacre," Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told reporters Tuesday. He said Syria remained committed to Annan's plan and "had not committed a single violation."
Activists have posted videos of tanks and armored vehicles in the middle of cities, a violation of the plan, and U.N. observers said they found spent tank and artillery shells in Houla after the massacre there. Funeral videos have also shown local rebels among the mourners — making it unlikely they carried out the killings.
Anti-regime rebels around the country regularly attack military convoys and checkpoints, killing soldiers.
Syria's violence seeped outside of its borders Tuesday.
Seventeen Syrians reportedly wounded in clashes in northern Syria crossed into Turkey, where one died in a Turkish hospital, Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency said Tuesday. Two others died before reaching the Turkish border, it said.
In Lebanon, gunfire from a Syrian border post killed one Lebanese citizen and wounded five others, Lebanon's state news agency said.
Syria's unrest began in March 2011, with protests calling for political change. Government troops swiftly cracked down at the uprising spread, and many in the opposition have taken up arms to defend their towns and attack government troops.
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara, Turkey, contributed reporting.