Beirut: Syria on Thursday blamed up to 800 rebel fighters for the massacre in central Syria last week that killed more than 100 people, nearly half of them children, in its most comprehensive explanation to date of the bloodshed.
The narrative starkly contradicted accounts of witnesses who blamed "shabiha" or the shadowy gunmen who operate on behalf of President Bashar Assad`s regime.
The UN also said it had strong suspicions those pro-regime gunmen were responsible for much of the carnage on Friday in a cluster of villages known as Houla.
Facing international outrage over the killings, Damascus launched its own investigation into the deaths and announced that special prayers for the victims would be held at mosques across the country on Friday.
The UN chief warned of civil war and pleaded with the regime to stop its attacks. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Syria to stop the bloodshed and also warned of a protracted conflict.
At a news conference on Thursday, Qassem Jamal Suleiman, who headed the government`s investigation into the massacre, categorically denied any regime role. He said hundreds of rebel gunmen carried out the slaughter after launching a coordinated attack on five security checkpoints.
The aim, he said, was to frame the government and to ignite sectarian strife in Syria.
"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.
A Houla-based opposition activist said it was clear that there had been no government investigation.
"The regime is looking for ways to justify the massacre to the world," said Saria al-Houlany.
"It`s clear that there wasn`t any professional probe. ... If we had 800 fighters in Houla, this massacre would not have happened," he said.