The Syrian government is “not at all” responsible for the massacre of at least 92 people in the central town of Houla which has sparked an international outcry, foreign ministry spokesman Jihad al- Makdesi told a news conference Sunday.
“We completely deny responsibility for this terrorist massacre against our people,” Makdesi said.
“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.
Makdesi said the massacre was carried out by “terrorists” after fighting between rebels and forces loyal to Assad.
“They (rebels) were equipped with mortars and anti-tank missiles, which is a quantitative leap,” he said.
“We have set up a military and legal committee to investigate,” he said. “The results will emerge within days,” he said.
Makdesi said U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan would arrive in Syria on Monday for fresh talks with senior officials.
Calling for a “return to dialogue and the negotiating table,” the spokesman said: “We want calm and we wish Mr. Annan well.
Meanwhile, Britain said it would haul in Syria’s top diplomat in London following the killings in Houla, the Foreign Office said.
Syria’s charge d’affaires -- their ambassador has been withdrawn -- will meet with one of the top civil servants in the Foreign Office on Monday so Britain can stress its “condemnation” over the incident.
“Following the horrifying massacre of innocent civilians in Houla, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has instructed that the Syrian charge d’affaires be summoned to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office,” a statement said.
“On Monday, May 28 he will meet political director Sir Geoffrey Adams who will make clear our condemnation of the Syrian regime’s actions.”
On Saturday Hague said Britain was in urgent talks with allies in the United Nations Security Council and the European Union on forging “a strong international response”.
He said the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regime “must ensure full and immediate access to Houla and other conflict areas in Syria for the U.N. monitoring team, and cease all military operations in full compliance with joint special envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point plan”.
In an unusual move, British newspapers printed graphic images of some of the dead children in Houla.
The Mail on Sunday said it did so to illustrate the depth of revulsion that might lead to United Nations intervention.
The Independent on Sunday said it did so to convey the full horror of the defenseless victims. It asked in a front page editorial: “The world looks the other way. Will you?
“Will the sickening fate of these innocent children make you very, very angry?”
Houla is a cluster of Sunni Muslim villages 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of the city of Homs, a center of the uprising against Assad’s rule.
The area is near a region inhabited by members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect that has been acting as a hub for pro-Assad militiamen, activists say.
Opposition activists in Homs said the killing started when Syrian troops and militiamen loyal to Assad, known as shabbiha, stationed at roadblocks that surround Houla, fired heavy machineguns at a demonstration in the area on Friday, killing five people.
Free Syrian Army rebels responded by attacking two roadblocks manned by Assad’s loyalists, the activists said.
Houla then came under an intense artillery barrage that killed about 15 villagers. Members of the shabbiha militia then entered Houla from the nearby Alawite villages and killed scores of men, women and children by hacking them or shooting them at close range, the activists said.
Meanwhile, more than 13,000 people have been killed in Syria since an anti-regime revolt broke out in March last year, Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP on Sunday.
“In total, 13,004 people were killed,” Abdel Rahman said, adding that 9,183 of them were civilians. Another 3,072 were regime troops, and 749 were army defectors, he added.