The United Nation's top human rights official has warned that Syria could descend into civil war unless the international community supports a peace plan and an investigation into the killing of more than 100 civilians in Houla last week.
Navi Pillay said on Friday that Syria and the entire region were in danger if a full-fledged conflict erupted in the country, as government forces opened fire on protesters in the Douma area near the capital Damascus, activists said.
UN monitors reported that at least 13 people were killed in violence during protests that broke out in towns and cities across Syria to condemn the May 25 killings.
The UN's Human Rights Council is meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss the massacre in Houla, a cluster of villages in the centre of the country, that left 108 people dead, many of them children.
The incident was one of the deadliest incidents since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's regime started in March last year, and has drawn global condemnation.
Countries including the US, Britain, Australia, and France expelled Syrian diplomats in protest.
Pillay urged an investigation into the Houla massacre, after the council put initial blame on government bombardment and gunmen loyal to Assad.
"Otherwise, the situation in Syria might descend into a full-fledged conflict and the future of the country, as well as the region as a whole could be in grave danger," she said in a statement read to the council.
Pillay urged world leaders to support the six-point peace plan negotiated by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, which calls on both the opposition and government forces to cease hostilities.
Annan on Friday said he is frustrated at the situation in the Security Council and repeated his calls for a unified approach, adding that it is up to the council to decide what new measures could be used to put an end to the violence.
"This is a decision that the Security Council will have to take ... What is important is that we continue our efforts to find a solution that leads to a transition in Syria," Annan told journalists after talks in Beirut with Najib Mikati, Lebanon's prime minister.
"A democratic transition that fulfills the aspirations of the Syrian people."
A draft resolution, circulated within the Human Rights Council late on Thursday, condemns the "killings confirmed by UN observers" in attacks that involved "the wanton killings of civilians by shooting at close range and by severe physical abuse by pro-regime elements and a series of government artillery and tank shellings of a residential neighbourhood".
The rights committee, which has repeatedly condemned Syria for its crackdown on dissent, is likely to adopt the resolution by a wide margin, even if countries including China, Cuba and Russia may vote against it as in the past, diplomats said.
Pillay's office said on Tuesday that most victims of the Houla massacre were civilians and entire families were shot in their homes.
Witnesses told UN investigators that most died in summary executions carried out by militiamen loyal to Assad, known as shabiha.
But Syria said its preliminary investigation had shown that up to 800 anti-government gunmen carried out the massacre with the aim of igniting sectarian strife and encouraging foreign military intervention.
Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, dismissed the Syrian investigation's conclusion as "another blatant lie", telling reporters in New York "there is no factual evidence ... that would substantiate that rendition of events".
|UN observers deployed to Syria traveled to Houla the day after the attack and confirmed the massacre [Reuters]
Damascus has announced that special prayers for the victims would be held at mosques across the country on Friday.
At a news conference on Thursday, Qassem Jamal Suleiman, who headed the Syrian government's investigation into the massacre, categorically denied any regime role.
He said hundreds of rebel gunmen carried out the slaughter after launching a co-ordinated attack on five security checkpoints.
"Government forces did not enter the area where the massacre occurred; not before the massacre and not after it," he said, adding that the victims were families who refused to oppose the government or carry arms.
Opposition activists have confirmed that checkpoints were attacked by rebels, but say it happened after security forces opened fire on a demonstration.
The area is still under attack, according to activists who said government forces focused shelling on Thursday on the Houla village of al-Tibeh.
The UN council draft text condemns the killings as violating Security Council resolutions and accuses Syrian forces of "repeated and systematic violations of human rights".
It calls for an existing team of UN rights investigators to "conduct a comprehensive, independent and unfettered special inquiry consistent with international standards into the events in Houla, to publicly identify those responsible for these atrocities and hold them to account".
But the EU is seeking stronger language on accountability, including a possible call for action by the Security Council, and has proposed amendments, according to diplomats.
"The question is whether to try to keep the Russians on board or sacrifice some of the stronger language. Some would like to create a more pragmatic approach with an eye to New York, ultimately," a Western diplomat said, referring to Russia's veto in the UN Security Council.
Moscow is a staunch ally of the Assad government and one of its main weapons suppliers.
A Russian cargo ship that Western officials say was laden with weapons for the government of Syria reportedly docked at the Syrian port of Tartous last weekend.
President Vladimir Putin said on Friday that Russia does not support any side in the Syrian conflict and denied it was shipping weapons to Damascus.
"Russia does not provide weapons that could be used in a civil conflict," Putin said at a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin.