UN emergency summit over Syria
Syria has strongly denied UN allegations that its forces killed more than 90 people in one of the deadliest events of the country's uprising, and diplomats said the Security Council met in an emergency session to discuss the massacre.
The killings in the west-central area of Houla on Friday brought widespread international criticism of the regime of President Bashar Assad, although differences emerged from world powers over whether his forces were exclusively to blame.
Britain and France had proposed issuing a press statement condemning the massacre, but Russia told UN Security Council members it could not agree and wanted a briefing first by Norwegian Major General Robert Mood, the head of the UN observer team inside the country.
Russia has been Syria's most powerful ally during the uprising, and along with China has used its veto power to shield Damascus from UN sanctions.
The massacre in Houla on Friday cast fresh doubts on the ability of an international peace plan put forward by envoy Kofi Annan to end Syria's 14-month-old crisis.
The brutality of the killings became clear in amateur videos posted online that showed scores of bodies, many of them young children, in neat rows and covered with blood and deep wounds. A later video showed the bodies, wrapped in white sheets, being placed in a sprawling mass grave.
The UN counted at least 32 children under the age of 10 among more than 90 dead and said its observers found tank and artillery shells at the site, suggesting the regime's well-equipped forces were to blame.
Activists from the area said the army pounded the villages with artillery and clashed with local rebels after protests Friday. Some activists said pro-regime thugs later stormed the area, doing the bulk of the killing.
The Syrian government rejected that version of events. Speaking to reporters in Damascus, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said Syrian security forces were in their local bases on Friday when they were attacked by "hundreds of heavily armed gunmen" firing mortars, heavy machine guns and anti-tank missiles, staring a nine-hour battle that killed three soldiers and wounded 16.
He blamed the gunmen for what he called a "terrorist massacre" in Houla and accused the media, Western officials and others of spinning a "tsunami of lies" to justify foreign intervention in Syria.