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BEIRUT, LEBANON - The U.N. Security Council on Sunday unanimously condemned the Syrian government for its role in the massacre of at least 108 villagers, with new details emerging from international observers that appeared to prompt rare Russian cooperation in criticizing its ally in Damascus.
The 15-member council approved a statement that, while not blaming the Syrian government directly for all of the deaths, criticized it for its use of tanks and artillery against civilians despite agreeing to an April 12 cease-fire.
"The evidence is clear -- it is not murky," German Ambassador Peter Wittig said after the emergency meeting. "There is a clear government footprint in those killings."
Syrian government actions not only violate the cease-fire engineered under U.N. auspices, but also jeopardize any effort at peace, Wittig said.
The United Nations says at least 108 people, including 49 children and 34 women, died in Friday's attacks in the area of Houla, a collection of Sunni villages 15 miles northwest of the central city of Homs. Villagers told U.N. monitors that at least some of the killings had been committed by shabiha, or government thugs, at close range -- those combatants tend to be Alawites, the same minority sect that includes President Bashar Assad.
The council's statement is sure to be a factor in efforts by Kofi Annan, a former U.N. secretary-general, to begin negotiating with the government on Monday in Damascus on carrying out the six-point peace plan that he engineered as a special envoy.
But Assad has repeatedly shown himself to be impervious to international pressure. A string of international leaders have criticized him for making promises such as respecting the Annan plan's cease-fire and then continuing his attempt to put down the uprising by force.
Indeed, there were reports of another case of Syrian shelling of civilians on Sunday, this time at Hama, a center of resistance where activists said dozens had been killed in new attacks.
Romney says arm opposition
Some Syrian opposition figures have criticized Western efforts to push the cease-fire when it was so clear that the government held it in contempt.
The issue also reverberated in partisan politics in the United States, with Mitt Romney, the presumed Republican presidential candidate, calling the massacre "horrific" and criticizing President Obama for backing the Annan plan.
"The Annan 'peace' plan -- which President Obama still supports -- has merely granted the Assad regime more time to execute its military onslaught," the Romney statement said. "The United States should work with partners to organize and arm Syrian opposition groups so they can defend themselves."
Russia has typically rejected any international effort to support the opposition in a way that might repeat the NATO military intervention in Libya, and despite strong statements, the West has avoided getting further embroiled in the Syria fighting out of fear of the long-term consequences. On Sunday, the Security Council statement said that the "outrageous use of force" against civilians violated international law and commitments the Syrian government had made under the plan to stop using its heavy weapons in populated areas. It demanded that the Syrian government cease using heavy weapons immediately and pull its troops out of cities and towns. It also asked the U.N. observer mission in Syria to continue investigating the Houla attacks.
An earlier draft of the statement had more directly blamed the Syrian government for the massacre, but the Russians balked, saying they wanted to be briefed privately by the U.N. observers' leader, Gen. Robert Mood, in Damascus. The council statement emerged after that briefing.
Diplomats said the details Mood presented closely followed those laid out by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who in a three-page letter demanded a concrete attempt to censure Syria and endorse the cease-fire.
In his letter, Ban skated very close to blaming Syrian government shelling for at least some of the deaths while carefully noting that the cause had not been completely determined. U.N. monitors "observed shotgun wounds and wounds consistent with artillery fire," he said.
'Fresh tank tracks'
The Russians seemed to be swayed by arguments that it made little sense that the opposition, which is heavily Sunni Muslim, or even extremist jihadist elements, would kill so many of their own faith in cold blood, said one Security Council diplomat, speaking anonymously about a closed-door session.
"The patrol also saw artillery and tank shells, as well as fresh tank tracks," Ban told the council. "Many buildings had been destroyed by heavy artillery."
The letter included other hints that government forces were involved, including the fact that as many as eight bodies of civilians were removed from a government checkpoint. Overall the letter said the monitors found evidence of "appalling and brutal crimes, which involved indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force."
In Geneva, the top U.N. human rights official issued a statement saying that the "indiscriminate and possibly deliberate targeting of civilians" in Houla might amount to crimes against humanity. Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, called for Syrian cooperation with an independent, international investigation.
In Damascus earlier, the Syrian government rejected any connection to the massacre.