The Syrian government is “not at all” responsible for the massacre of at least 92 people in the central town of Houla which has sparked an international outcry, foreign ministry spokesman Jihad al-Makdissi said on Sunday.
“We completely deny responsibility for this terrorist massacre against our people,” Makdissi told a news conference.
Blaming “terrorists” for the deaths on Friday and Saturday, the spokesman said the government had opened an investigation.
“We have set up a military and legal committee to investigate,” he said. “The results will emerge within days.”
Makdissi said UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan would arrive in Syria on Monday for fresh talks with senior officials.
Calling for a “return to dialogue and the negotiating table,” the spokesman said: “We want calm and we wish Mr Annan well.”
Makdissi said no Syrian tanks had entered Houla and government troops in the town had only acted in self-defence.
“There was an assault by terrorists from 2:00 pm (1100 GMT) until 11:00 pm (2000 GMT),” he said. “Not one Syrian tank went in. The Syrian forces did not leave their positions.”
He added, however, that Syrian forces had “retaliated in self-defence,” and that “clashes continued until 11:00 pm (2000 GMT).”
Responding to UN chief Ban Ki-moon’s calls to withdraw heavy armoury and tanks from the streets, Makdissi said: “There are neighbourhoods where there are armed men.
“The observers go into the towns and see with their own eyes,” he said. “It is the government’s right to protect its citizens.”
On Saturday, a team of UN observers visited Houla. The team “counted more than 32 children and over 60 adults killed,” observer mission chief Major General Robert Mood told reporters in Damascus.
A monitoring group said 114 people had been killed in Houla.
“Whoever started, whoever responded and whoever carried out this deplorable act of violence should be held responsible,” Mood said.