Gruesome video Saturday showed rows of dead Syrian children lying in a mosque in bloody shorts and T-shirts with gaping head wounds, haunting images of what activists called one of the deadliest regime attacks yet in Syria's 14-month-old uprising.
The shelling attack on Houla, a group of villages northwest of the central city of Homs, killed more than 90 people, including at least 32 children under the age of 10, the head of the U.N. observer team in Syria said.
The attacks sparked outrage from U.S. and other international leaders, and large protests in the suburbs of Syria's capital of Damascus and its largest city, It also renewed fears of the relevance of a month-old international peace plan. The U.N. 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."
"This appalling and brutal crime involving indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force is a flagrant violation of international law and of the commitments of the Syrian government to cease the use of heavy weapons in population centers and violence in all its forms," said U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and international envoy Kofi Annan.
More than a dozen amateur videos posted online Saturday gave glimpses of the carnage, showing lines of bodies laid out in simple rooms, many with bloody faces, torsos and limbs.
One two-minute video shows at least a dozen children lined up shoulder to shoulder on a checkered blanket on what appears to be the floor of a mosque. Blood trickled from one girl's mouth. One boy, appearing to be no more than 8, had his jaw blown off. The video shows flowered blankets and rugs covering several rows of other bodies. Another video posted Saturday showed a mass grave, four bodies wide and dozens of yards long.
Activists from Houla said Saturday that regime forces peppered the area with mortars after large demonstrations against the regime on Friday. That evening, they said, pro-regime fighters known as shabiha stormed the villages, gunning down men in the streets and stabbing women and children in their homes.
A local activist reached via Skype said regime forces fired shells at Houla, about 25 miles northwest of Homs. The shabiha entered the villages, raiding homes and shooting at civilians, Abu Yazan said. More than 100 people were killed, more than 40 of them children and most of them in the village of Taldaw, he said.
"They killed entire families, from parents on down to children, but they focused on the children," Yazan said.
The Syrian government blamed the killings on "armed terrorist groups" -- a term it often uses for the opposition -- but provided no details or death toll.
The United States is "horrified" by the Houla attacks, National Security Council spokeswoman Erin Pelton said in a statement. "These acts serve as a vile testament to an illegitimate regime that responds to peaceful political protest with unspeakable and inhuman brutality."
U.N. observers, among more than 250 who were dispatched in recent weeks to salvage the cease-fire plan, found spent artillery tank shells at the site Saturday, and U.N. officials confirmed the shells were fired at residential neighborhoods. The head of the team, Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, called the attack a "brutal tragedy."
The U.N. put the uprising's death toll at more than 9,000 weeks ago. Hundreds have been killed since.