NEW: Leader of the Free Syrian Army calls for retaliatory attacks against the government
Syrian state media says al Qaeda-linked groups are responsible for the violence
U.N. observers see the bodies of close to three dozen children
Major general: "Whoever took part in this deplorable act ... should be held responsible"
Editor’s Note: To read this story in Arabic, click here.
World outrage grew Saturday as details emerged about an attack in the Syrian village of Houla, which left more than 90 people dead, including nearly three dozen children, according to the United Nations.
U.N. observers went to Houla and viewed the bodies, a day after opposition activists reported a massacre there at the hands of the Syrian regime. The activists said entire families were killed.
“Whoever started, whoever responded and whoever took part in this deplorable act of violence should be held responsible,” Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, the head of the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria, said in a statement.
Thirty-two children under the age of 10 and more than 60 adults were killed Friday, the statement read. Circumstances that led to the deaths are unclear, he said.
Later, Mood told CNN that observers counted 85 bodies and that 34 of the dead were children under the age of 10. The discrepancy with the earlier number could not immediately be explained.
Observers confirmed the use of artillery and tank shells, Mood said.
“This indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force is unacceptable and unforgivable. The killing of innocent children and civilians needs to stop,” said the major general.
He stressed that unarmed U.N. observers are just “one small ingredient” in the effort to end the ongoing violence in Syria.
“At some point, obviously, there will be a discussion about other alternatives and other ways forward, but that is a discussion that has to be within the context of the U.N. Security Council and the key stakeholders to all of this,” Mood told CNN.
Syrian state media reported the observers’ visits Saturday to several towns and cities and blamed al Qaeda-linked groups for the deaths in Houla.
State TV broadcast Houla images filmed by opposition activists and reported that “more than 50 children were killed … by criminals and killers who aim to hurt Syria.”
The government has consistently blamed “armed terrorists” for violence in Syria.
Rebels leaders interpreted the latest massacre as evidence that a United Nations cease-fire and peace plan aren’t working and called for retaliatory attacks.
“We call on our fighters, the soldiers and the revolutionaries, to conduct organized and planned military strikes against Assad battalions and regime members,” Brig. Gen. Mustafa Al-Sheikh, a top leader in the rebel group, said in a video statement posted on YouTube.
A network of Syrian opposition activists, the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, blamed “forces and armed militias” of the Syrian government for “a new massacre” in Houla.
“This barbaric act was preceded by the regime’s mortar shelling in the town,” the LCC said in a statement. “The campaign ended when the armed militias slaughtered entire families in cold blood.”
Graphic video posted on YouTube purportedly shows the lifeless bodies of small children killed in Houla. They are spread on the floor amid blankets, caked in blood. One child is turned to reveal a head wound.
CNN could not independently confirm the authenticity of the video, nor can it confirm reports from within the country because the government strictly limits access by foreign journalists.
In a joint statement with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, joint special envoy to Syria Kofi Annan said he is contacting Syrian authorities “to convey in the clearest terms the expectations of the international community.”
“This appalling and brutal crime involving indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force is a flagrant violation of international law and of the commitments of the Syrian government to cease the use of heavy weapons in population centers and violence in all its forms,” the joint statement said. “Those responsible for perpetrating this crime must be held to account.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the Houla killings.
“Those who perpetrated this atrocity must be identified and held to account,” Clinton said in a statement. “And the United States will work with the international community to intensify our pressure on (Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) and his cronies, whose rule by murder and fear must come to an end.”
Lt. Bassim al-Khaled, a spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Movement, said more bloodshed is coming. The al-Assad government is using the cease-fire and peace plan “to kill more people and is trying to crush the uprising,” al-Khaled said.
“So the only language this regime is going to understand is the language of the gun,” al-Khaled said. “Wait and see, we will make them pay for each drop of blood which was shed.”
Britain also condemned the massacre, calling Saturday for an urgent session of the U.N. Security Council and a full account of the “appalling crime.”
More regime attacks Saturday killed 60 people across the country, including 25 in Homs, just south of Houla, according to the Local Coordination Committees.
The Local Coordination Committees earlier Saturday decried the world’s “apparent blindness” to the violence in Syria.
Months of U.N. Security Council attempts to resolve the crisis have failed to have any effect.
Ban said Friday the full cadre of 300 U.N. observers authorized by the Council will be in Syria in the coming days.
Ban issued a sobering report Friday on the Syrian crisis, detailing “continuing reports of a stepped-up security crackdown by the authorities that has led to massive violations of humans rights … including arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearance and summary execution of activists, opponents and defectors.”
In a letter to the head of the U.N. Security Council, obtained by CNN, Ban said he is deeply concerned that the Syrian violence has not stopped despite the presence of the monitors and the agreement by both sides to a peace plan.
U.N. officials say more than 9,000 people, mostly civilians, have died and tens of thousands have been uprooted since the uprising began in March 2011. Opposition groups report a death toll of more than 11,000 people.
Following the reported massacre in Houla on Friday, the rebel Free Syrian Army implored members of the international “Friends of Syria” group to form a military coalition to launch airstrikes against al-Assad forces.
Meanwhile, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) said that “al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups” massacred a couple and their six sons and a father and son in the rural village of al-Shumariyeh village in the Homs province.
The agency also said similar terrorist groups massacred a family of seven, including three children, in the same province’s rural town of Taldo. The groups also burned houses and crops and blamed the army for bombarding the area, SANA reported. The terror group also sabotaged the National Hospital in the area and attacked a law enforcement headquarters, SANA said.
CNN’s Mohammed Jamjoom in Beirut, Omar Al Muqdad in Turkey, Elizabeth Joseph, Richard Roth, Saad Abedine, Holly Yan, Karen Smith, Yousuf Basil and Michael Martinez contributed to this report.