A Syrian artillery barrage killed more than 90 people, including dozens of children, in the worst violence since the start of a UN peace plan to staunch the flow of blood from Syria's uprising, activists said on Saturday.
The bloodied bodies of children, some with their skulls rent by shrapnel, were shown lying in a room to the sound of wailing in footage posted to YouTube which purported to show the victims of the shelling in the central town of Houla on Friday.
The reports of the carnage, which could not be confirmed independently, underlined how far Syria is from any negotiated path out the 14-month-old revolt against President Bashar Assad.
A UK-based opposition group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said residents of the town were fleeing in fear of more shelling.
Syrian state television aired some of the same footage disseminated by activists, calling the bodies victims of a massacre committed by "terrorist" gangs, without elaborating.
A member of the fragmented group that says it speaks for Syria's political opposition said Assad's forces had killed "entire families" in Houla in addition to the shelling.
"The Syrian National Council (SNC) urges the UN Security Council to call for an emergency meeting... and to determine the responsibility of the United Nations in the face of such mass killings," SNC spokeswoman Bassma Kodmani said.
Opposition activists said Syrian forces opened fire with artillery after skirmishing with insurgents in Houla, a cluster of villages north of the city of Homs, itself battered by shelling.
Syria calls the revolt a "terrorist" conspiracy run from abroad, in a veiled reference to Sunni Muslim Gulf powers which call for arming an insurgency led by Syria's majority Sunnis against Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect.
A six-week old ceasefire plan has failed to stop the violence in Syria, although the United Nations is nearing full deployment of a 300-member unarmed observer force meant to monitor a truce.
The United Nations said on Friday that recent bomb attacks may have been the work of "established terrorist groups" and urged states not to supply arms to either the government or rebel forces.
"Those who may contemplate supporting any side with weapons, military training or other military assistance, must reconsider such options to enable a sustained cessation of violence," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council in a letter on Friday.
The United Nations has accused Assad's forces and insurgents alike of grave human rights abuses, including summary executions and torture.
Ban has also expressed fear that Syria's conflict will destabilize neighboring Lebanon, whose delicate sect-based politics has been shaken by tensions among Lebanese foes and friends of the uprising in Syria.
In the latest episode, gunmen in northern Syria snatched a group of Lebanese Shi'ites this week as they were returning from a religious pilgrimage, sparking the worst unrest in years in the Lebanese capital.
Uncertainty over their fate increased tension in Beirut on Saturday, a day after Lebanon's top officials said the release of the hostages and their return home was imminent.
The prime minister said on Friday afternoon they had been freed, but hours later there was still no sign of them. A member of the SNC said they were still in captivity, further riling a crowd which had gathered at Beirut's airport to meet them.
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