Government troops and pro-regime thugs killed more than 90 people in a handful of villages in central Syria, activists said Saturday, a death toll that if confirmed would make the attack one of deadliest single events in 15 months of unrest.
Activists from Houla, an area northwest of the central city of Homs, said regime forces peppered the area with mortars following a large anti-regime protest on Friday, then pro-regime thugs known as shabiha stormed the area, shooting men in the streets and stabbing women and children in their homes.
Amateur videos posted online showed scores of dead covered in sheets and blankets, some covered with chunks of ice to preserve then until burial. One video shows 14 dead children lined up on the ground, shoulder to shoulder. Another shows at least a dozen more lying on what appears to be the floor of a mosque, some with holes in their heads and faces.
The Syrian government, for its part, blamed the massacre on "armed terrorist groups" but provided no details or death toll.
The new killings strike a huge blow to an international peace plan brokered by envoy Kofi Annan meant to end the violence in Syria. The basis of the plan is a cease-fire between forces loyal to the regime of President Bashar Assad and rebels seeking to topple it. It was supposed to start on April 12 but has never really taken hold, with new killings every day.
The U.N. put the death toll weeks ago at more than 9,000. Hundreds have been killed since.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday said there has only been "small progress" on implementing the plan and blamed the Syrian government for much of the "unacceptable levels of violence and abuses." Annan is supposed to visit Syria soon to check on the plan's progress, though no date has been announced.
On Saturday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius condemned the attack.
"With these new crimes, this murderous regime pushes Syria further into horror and threatens regional stability," he said in a statement.
A local activist reached via Skype said regime forces fired shells at the villages that make up Houla, an area about 40 kilometers (25 miles) northwest of the city of Homs in west-central Syria, after an anti-regime demonstration Friday.
Abu Yazan said local rebels fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army tried to fight the army off in clashes around the area before pro-regime thugs known as shabiha entered the villages, raiding homes and shooting at civilians.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 90 people were killed in the Houla area. Abu Yazan said 106 people were killed, most of them in the village of Taldaw. More than 40 were children, he said.
"They killed entire families, from parents on down to children, but they focused on the children," he said.
Another activist, Abu Walid, said that many of the women and children had stab wounds.
The activists said the Houla killings appeared to be sectarian, raising fears that Syria's uprising, which started in March 2011 with protests calling for political reform, is edging closer to the type of sectarian war that tore apart its eastern neighbor, Iraq.
The Houla villages are Sunni Muslim. The forces all came from an arc of villages south of Houla that are populated by Alawites, members of the offshoot of Shiite Islam to which Assad belongs, the activists said.
"Our area is Sunni and the surrounding villages are Alawite," Abu Walid said. "I don't like to talk about sectarianism, but it was clear that this was sectarian hatred."
Amateur videos posted online showed dozens of bodies laid out in different rooms, including women wearing Muslim headscarves and children in shorts and T-shirts.
Syrian state TV blamed the "massacre" in Houla on "armed terrorist groups" — a term it often uses for the opposition.
"The armed groups are escalating their massacres against the Syrian people only days before international envoy Kofi Annan's visit in a bid to defeat his plan and a political solution to the crisis and with the aim of exploiting the blood of Syrians in the media bazar," it said.
The claims and videos could not be independently verified. The Syrian government bars most media from operating inside the country.
News of the killings elicited harsh condemnations from anti-regime groups, many of which have expressed frustration with international reluctance to intervene in Syria's conflict.
World powers have fallen in behind the U.N. plan, which is supposed to lead to dialogue between all sides on a political solution. The U.S. and European nations say they will not intervene militarily, and while Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Libya have said they will arm Syria's rebels, no country is known to be doing so now.
A spokeswoman for the opposition Syrian National Council called on the U.N. Security Council "to examine the situation in Houla and to determine the responsibility of the United Nations in the face of such mass killings, expulsions and forced migration from entire neighborhoods."
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights released an unusually harsh statement, saying Arab nations and the international community were "partners" in the killing "because of their silence about the massacres that the Syrian regime has committed."
The U.N. has sent more then 250 military observers to Syria to try to salvage the cease-fire, and a spokesman for the team said they visited Houla on Saturday.
One Houla activist said the observers' visit would not help and could cause the government to attack again.
"As soon as they came we asked them to leave because many areas they go get attacked," said Abu Suleiman, via Skype. "We don't want them to get near us."