By HAMZA HENDAWI, The Associated Press
CAIRO (AP) -- A senior Arab League official says Syria has denied permission for a deputy of U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan to travel to Damascus.
The official says Syria made clear that the decision against former Palestinian foreign minister Nasser al-Kidwa is not personal, but rather because it did not want to deal with the Arab League.
The official spoke Sunday on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Annan is due in Damascus on Monday. The Arab League named Al-Kidwa as his deputy in March.
Syria, where nearly 10,000 have died since a popular uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime began last year, says the League became a tool of the West. The group suspended Syria's membership and approved sanctions against it late last year.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) - The Syrian government denied Sunday its troops were behind an attack on a string of villages that left more than 90 people dead, blaming the killings on "hundreds of heavily-armed gunmen" who also attacked soldiers in the area.
Friday's assault on Houla, an area northwest of the central city of Homs, was one of the bloodiest single events in Syria's 15-month-old uprising. The U.N. says 32 children under 10 were among the dead. The international body and others have issued statements appearing to hold the Syrian regime responsible.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told reporters in Damascus at a news conference that Syria is being subjected to a "tsunami of lies" on Houla. "We categorically deny the responsibility of government forces for the massacre," Makdissi said.
Makdissi said a committee was set up to investigate the incident and results should be out within three days. He added that U.N. envoy Kofi Annan will be in Syria on Monday.
The attacks sparked outrage from American and other international leaders, and renewed concerns about the relevance of a month-old international peace plan that has not stopped almost daily violence.
U.N. observers, among more than 250 who were dispatched in recent weeks to salvage the cease-fire plan, found spent artillery and tank shells at the site Saturday - a finding which would point toward the government's heavily-armed mechanized units.
"Those who use violence for their own agenda will create more instability, more unpredictability and may lead the country to civil war," warned the observers' chief Maj. Gen. Robert Mood in a statement.
Makdissi however said "hundreds of heavily-armed gunmen carrying machineguns, mortars and anti-tank missiles" launched the attack, that started at about 2 p.m. and lasted nine hours, simultaneously from several locations. He added that five army positions in the area came under attack at the same time leaving three soldiers dead and 16 wounded.
"There were no Syrian tanks or artillery in the vicinity" of Houla, Makdissi said. He added that gunmen used anti-tank missiles and "Syrian troops retaliated in defense of their positions."
Kuwait, which currently heads the 22-member Cairo-based Arab League, announced it is calling for an Arab ministerial meeting that aims to "take steps to put an end to the oppressive practices against the Syrian people."
An unnamed foreign ministry official was quoted by Kuwait's official news agency, KUNA, as condemning the attack in Houla and blamed regime forces for the "ugly crime." The official said Kuwait is making contacts so that the international community can "assume its responsibilities to stop the blood shedding of Syrian brothers."
The U.N. had denounced the attacks in a statement that appeared to hold President Bashar Assad's regime responsible, and the White House called the violence acts of "unspeakable and inhuman brutality." Syria blames armed "terrorist groups."
"Children, women and other innocent people were killed in their homes and this is not what the Syrian army does," Makdissi said. "The method of killing was brutal."
The bloodshed is yet another blow to the international peace plan brokered by Annan and cast a pall over his coming visit to check on the plan's progress. The cease-fire between forces loyal to the regime of Assad and rebels seeking to topple 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.
Also Sunday, government troops shelled residential areas in central Syria.
The shelling hit neighborhoods in the central city of Hama and the rebel-held town of Rastan north of Homs, the Local Coordination Committees and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The two groups also reported clashes between troops and rebels in Hama, in the Damascus suburb of Harasta and in the capital's central Midan district. They said a bomb struck a security vehicle in the capital's upscale district of Mazzeh - near a military airport, according to the LCC.
The Observatory said the vehicle bombing caused casualties but did not have other details on the dead or wounded from the day's violence.
A video posted online by activists showed thick black smoke billowing from what it said was Mazzeh.
Damascus is tightly controlled by regime forces but has been hit by a wave of blasts over recent months that claimed the lives of scores of people. Most of the blasts have targeted Syrian security agencies.
Bassem Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Adam Schreck contributed to this report from Dubai.
U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice tweets:
|@ AmbassadorRice : #Syria regime turned artillery, tanks and helicopters on its own men & women. It unleashed knife-wielding shabiha gangs on its own children.|
Russia says international envoy Kofi Annan will visit Moscow on Monday to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria. Russia also called for an inquiry into an alleged massacre that took place in the village of Tramseh on Thursday. "We have no doubt that this wrongdoing serves the interests of those powers that are not seeking peace but persistently seek to sow the seeds of interconfessional and civilian conflict on Syrian soil," Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement, according to Reuters. Moscow did not apportion blame for the killings.
Read more on Reuters.com.
The Associated Press obtained a video that purports to show the aftermath of an alleged massacre in the village of Tramseh, near Hama.
How do Syria's fighters get their arms? An overview put together by Reuters explains that there are three gateways to the country -- Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.
Syrian rebels are smuggling small arms into Syria through a network of land and sea routes involving cargo ships and trucks moving through Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, maritime intelligence and Free Syrian Army (FSA) officers say. Western and regional powers deny any suggestion they are involved in gun running. Their interest in the sensitive border region lies rather in screening to ensure powerful weapons such as surface to air missiles do not find their way to Islamist or other militants.
Read the full report here.
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a man mourning a victim killed by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
According to the Hama Revolutionary Council, a Syrian opposition group, more than 220 people have been killed in a new alleged massacre in Taramseh. Earlier reports said more than 100 people were killed. "More than 220 people fell today in Taramseh," the Council said in a statement. "They died from bombardment by tanks and helicopters, artillery shelling and summary executions."
Fadi Sameh, an opposition activist from Taramseh, told Reuters he had left the town before the reported massacre but was in touch with residents. "It appears that Alawite militiamen from surrounding villages descended on Taramseh after its rebel defenders pulled out, and started killing the people. Whole houses have been destroyed and burned from the shelling," Sameh claimed.
Read more on Reuters.com.
Syrian activist Rami Jarrah tweets that Syrian State TV has confirmed deaths in Tremseh. "Terrorists" is often the term used by the Syrian regime for opposition forces.
|@ AlexanderPageSY : Syrian State TV: clashes between security apparatus & terrorists in #Tremseh of #Hama leaves large numbers of terrorists killed #Syria|
|@ Reuters : UPDATE: DEATH TOLL IN SYRIAN FORCES' ATTACK ON VILLAGE IN SYRIA'S HAMA REGION IS MORE THAN 200, MOSTLY CIVILIANS - OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS|