BEIRUT (AP) — Syria on Thursday blamed up to 800 rebel fighters for the massacre in central Syria last week that killed more than 100 people, nearly half of them children, in its most comprehensive explanation to date of the bloodshed.
The narrative starkly contradicted accounts of witnesses who blamed "shabiha" or the shadowy gunmen who operate on behalf of President Bashar Assad's regime. The U.N. also said it had strong suspicions those pro-regime gunmen were responsible for much of the carnage on Friday in a cluster of villages known as Houla.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., dismissed the Syrian investigation's conclusion as "another blatant lie," telling reporters in New York "there is no factual evidence ... that would substantiate that rendition of events."
Facing international outrage over the killings, Damascus launched its own investigation into the deaths and announced that special prayers for the victims would be held at mosques across the country on Friday. The U.N. chief warned of civil war and pleaded with the regime to stop its attacks.
At a news conference Thursday, Qassem Jamal Suleiman, who headed the government's investigation into the massacre, categorically denied any regime role. He said hundreds of rebel gunmen carried out the slaughter after launching a coordinated attack on five security checkpoints.
The aim, he said, was to frame the government and to ignite sectarian strife in Syria.
"Government forces did not enter the area where the massacre occurred, not before the massacre and not after it," he said, adding that the victims were families who refused to oppose the government or carry arms.
A Houla-based opposition activist said it was clear that there had been no government investigation.
"The regime is looking for ways to justify the massacre to the world," said Saria al-Houlany. "It's clear that there wasn't any professional probe. ... If we had 800 fighters in Houla, this massacre would not have happened," he said.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said the aim was to create sedition in Syria.
"There are people in dark rooms working night and day to target Syria ... and the way to do it is to ignite civil strife," he told reporters at the same news conference. "They will not succeed."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Sunday called for "a transparent, independent and impartial international investigation" so those responsible for the massacre can be held accountable.
Rice, the U.S. ambassador, said the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council is discussing a resolution that would establish an independent investigation to ensure that facts are established so the perpetrators can be prosecuted.
The Houla massacre was one of the deadliest incidents since the uprising against Assad's hardline regime started in March last year. Activists say about 13,000 have been killed in 15 months.
The area is still under attack. The government focused its shelling Thursday on the Houla village of al-Tibeh. The activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that some residents fled to nearby towns and villages "fearing a new massacre" as the area again came under fire.
Persistent bloodshed despite a cease-fire agreement has raised pressure on the international community to act.
But Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton laid out the clearest case yet for why the Obama administration is reluctant to intervene militarily in Syria even as the U.S. expressed revulsion over the Houla killings.
Clinton said Russia and China would have to agree before the U.S. and other nations engage in what could become a protracted conflict in support of a disorganized rebel force.
"We're nowhere near putting together any type of coalition other than to alleviate the suffering," Clinton told reporters Thursday after meeting with top officials in Denmark, a key contributor to last year's NATO-led mission against Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.
Russia's continued support for Assad "is going to help contribute to a civil war," Clinton warned.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Syria to stop the bloodshed and also warned of a protracted conflict.
Nearly 300 U.N. observers have been deployed around Syria to monitor a cease-fire that was supposed to go into effect on April 12 as part of a peace plan negotiated by international envoy Kofi Annan. But the plan has unraveled amid daily visit and the images from the Houla massacre caused outrage to spike.
"The massacre of civilians of the sort seen last weekend could plunge Syria into a catastrophic civil war — a civil war from which the country would never recover," Ban said in Istanbul. He added that the international community was united in demands that the Syrian government act on its responsibilities to its people.
"We are there to record violations and to speak out so that the perpetrators of crimes may be held to account," Ban told a summit of the Alliance of Civilizations, a forum promoting understanding between the Western and Islamic worlds.
"Let me state plainly, however: The U.N. did not deploy in Syria just to bear witness to the slaughter of innocents," he added. "We are not there to play the role of passive observer to unspeakable atrocities."
Annan, meanwhile, arrived in Lebanon, where 10 people were killed in clashes between pro- and anti-Syrian groups earlier this month, raising fears the conflict could spill over to neighboring countries.
In the wake of last week's massacre, the United States, Western and Asian nations expelled Syrian diplomats in protest.
Also Thursday, Syria's state-run TV said 500 people who had gotten involved in recent events in Syria were released from detention. It gave no further details.
In Damascus, the Syria International Islamic Bank, or SIIB, criticized the latest sanctions imposed Wednesday by the Obama administration as "irrational and unjustified."
The Treasury Department said Wednesday that SIIB has been acting as a front for other Syrian financial institutions seeking to circumvent sanctions. The new penalties will prohibit the bank from engaging in financial transactions in the U.S. and will freeze any assets under U.S. jurisdiction.
SIIB said it would undertake all necessary measures toward the U.S. decision, saying it has no assets or accounts in the United States. It added that the bank, like other Syrian banks, halted all banking operations with the dollar since U.S. sanctions were first imposed on Syria.
With Washington unwilling at this point to pursue military options in Syria, the U.S. has relied heavily on economic sanctions as a means for pressing Assad to leave power. The United States will host other nations in Washington next week to look at ways to tighten international sanctions further.
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.