GENEVA (AP) - The killings took place under a late spring sun. The squads poured into the Syrian village of Houla on foot and in vehicles: cars, minivans and pickups mounted with machine guns.
At the end, more than 100 people were dead - nearly half of them children - in what the United Nations described for the first time Wednesday as a war crime perpetrated by the government forces and shabiha militia backing the regime of President Bashar Assad.
People who tried to remove the bodies were shot at. No one who'd survived the massacre had fled to a nearby national hospital that was accessible on foot - they knew the army had occupied it for months. And when U.N. observers arrived the next day to check on the scene, they found government troops in control.
In a highly anticipated report that spells out clear responsibility for attacks on civilians, an independent commission appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council laid the groundwork for possible prosecutions in international courts against the Syrian leader and other senior government officials.
The panel's report also contained an ominous warning that Syria's civil war was moving in "brutal" directions on all fronts as Assad's forces step up air assaults and anti-government armed groups seek stronger firepower to fight back.
It found that the regime and pro-government shabiha militia were directly responsible for the killing of more than 100 civilians in Houla in late May. The Syrian government had reported the Syrian Army was defending itself at Houla from an attack by "terrorists," and said some of its soldiers were killed in the clashes.
But the U.N. panel's report to the 47-nation Human Rights Council, which is based in Geneva, says it determined the Houla killings and numerous other murders, unlawful killings, acts of torture, rape and other sexual violence and indiscriminate attacks on civilians were carried out "pursuant to state policy pointing to the involvement at the highest levels of the armed and security forces and the government."
According to the final 102-page report to the council, in one village site where around 60 people were killed, the commission found through satellite imagery and corroborated accounts that "the movement of vehicles or weapons, as well as the size of the group, would have been easily detectable by government forces," but the place was inaccessible for any "sizeable" anti-government armed group.
The panel also concluded anti-government armed groups committed war crimes, including murder, extrajudicial killings and torture, but said "these violations and abuses were not of the same gravity, frequency and scale" as those carried out by government forces and the shabiha militia.
A confidential list of people and armed units believed to be responsible for crimes against humanity, breaches of international humanitarian law and gross human rights violations will be submitted to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay in September.
In its use of the term "war crimes" to describe its findings, the panel relies on an assessment of Syria by the International Committee of the Red Cross in mid-July. The Geneva-based ICRC, which oversees the Geneva Conventions known as the rules of war, said it now considers the 17-month-old conflict in Syria to be a full-blown civil war, meaning international humanitarian law applies throughout the country.