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Syria 'massacre' raises pressure for international response

Syrian artillery attack that apparently killed more than 90 people, including many children, brought French condemnation, while the UK said it would call for urgent UN Security Council meeting.

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Although Annan's six-week old ceasefire plan has failed to stop the violence, the United Nations is nearing full deployment of a 300-strong unarmed observer force meant to monitor a truce.

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The plan also calls for a truce, withdrawal of troops from cities, and dialogue between the government and opposition.

Fabius said that "UN observers need to be able to complete their mission and the UN-Arab League's joint special envoy's exit plan has to be implemented immediately."

In a statement Arab League head Nabil Elaraby called the killing in Houla a "horrific crime," urging the UN Security Council - where Russia and China have protected Syria - to "stop the escalation of killing and violence by armed gangs and government military forces."

The state news agency SANA said the observers had visited Houla on Saturday, but did not elaborate. A spokeswoman for the monitoring mission did not respond to calls.

Syria calls the revolt a "terrorist" conspiracy run from abroad, a veiled reference to Sunni Muslim Gulf powers that want to see weapons provided to an insurgency led by Syria's majority Sunnis against Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect.

'Terrorist groups'

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Friday that recent bomb attacks may have been the work of "established terrorist groups" and urged states not to supply arms to either the government or rebel forces.

"Those who may contemplate supporting any side with weapons, military training or other military assistance, must reconsider such options to enable a sustained cessation of violence," he told the Security Council in a letter.

The United Nations has accused Assad's forces and insurgents alike of grave human rights abuses, including summary executions and torture.

Ban has also expressed fear that Syria's conflict will destabilize neighboring Lebanon, whose delicate sect-based politics has been shaken by tensions among Lebanese foes and friends of the uprising in Syria.

In the latest episode, gunmen in northern Syria snatched a group of Lebanese Shiites this week as they were returning from a religious pilgrimage, sparking the worst unrest in years in the Lebanese capital.

Uncertainty over their fate increased tension in Beirut on Saturday, a day after Lebanon's top officials said the release of the hostages and their return home was imminent.

The prime minister said on Friday afternoon they had been freed, but by Saturday there was still no sign of them. A member of the SNC said they were still in captivity, further angering a crowd that had gathered at Beirut's airport to meet them.

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