BEIRUT: Accounts differed Friday on how up to 220 people were killed in the village of Tremseh near central Hama, but the latest reported atrocity at the hands of Syrian government forces served to ramp up Western calls for concrete action at the U.N. to end violence in the country.
Opposition activists in Syria said Friday that government forces bombarded the poor agricultural village with helicopter gunships and tanks before armed thugs moved in, leaving scores of people dead. If proven, it would be one of the worst single incidents of bloodshed in the uprising against President Bashar Assad’s rule.
Sketchy details of the killings began to emerge via activists on social media late Thursday. The accounts and numbers of the dead Friday were varied. Local activists backed away from initial declarations that more than 200 mainly civilians were killed. One said he had confirmed 74, but had only 20 names. Another provided a list of 103 names.
Meanwhile, troops shot at protesters Friday in Damascus and Aleppo, the British-based opposition group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, reporting at least another 75 deaths across the country – 25 civilians, 24 soldiers and 26 rebels.
Activist claims and videos of the Tremseh attack could be independently verified, but the killings appear to be the latest in a string of offensives by Syrian forces attempting to crush the uprising against Assad.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed outrage over the assault and urged the U.N. Security Council to make clear to Damascus that there would be consequences.
Clinton said accounts of the attack provided “indisputable evidence that the regime deliberately murdered innocent civilians.”
“Those who committed these atrocities will be identified and held accountable,” Clinton said in a statement.
The head of the U.N. monitoring mission in Syria, UNSMIS, also singled out government forces for blame, saying they attacked from the air and land in “continuous violence.”
Yet much remains unclear about what happened in Tremseh, such as why Assad’s troops moved against the village and whether all of the dead were civilians. Few videos were shot during the violence Thursday, but one showed a mass grave that was three bodies wide and about 10 bodies long.
Rebel leader Abu Mohammad, whose fighters are based near Tremseh, said more than 200 were slaughtered.
The Observatory said “several dozen rebel fighters were among those killed,” adding only around 40 of the dead had been identified, while 30 were burned and 18 were “summarily executed.”
An activist at a media center in Hama said “a large number of rebels were killed in fighting between the FSA and the regular army.”
Syrian state media reported that the army killed “many terrorists” in Tremseh, but no civilians.
One anti-regime activist, Mousab al-Hamadee, who said he had been sheltering his family from Tremseh at nearby Sahel al-Gharb, told The Daily Star that while the mainly Sunni village had been harboring some defectors, the attack was only motivated by “attempts by the regime to create sectarian conflict.” Tremseh is a Sunni Muslim village in an area also home to communities of other sects, including Christians and Alawites, the sect of Assad and many in the security forces.“The U.N. monitors are not welcome here. They come after people die. All we want to do now is sell everything to buy weapons to liberate Syria from this criminal Alawite regime,” he said.
“Army units carried out a special operation,” a Syrian army spokesman said, “targeting armed terrorist groups and their leadership hideouts.”
Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, head of UNSMIS, told reporters in Damascus that a group of observers about 5 kilometers away from the violence confirmed the use of heavy weapons and attack helicopters.
He said his team would investigate if a cease-fire was reached. But according to a UNSMIS report, a patrol of unarmed U.N. military observers could only get within about 6 kilometers of the village and were stopped by SAAF commanders due to “military operations” in the area.
In June it took monitors almost two days to reach a site of another alleged massacre of 78 people stabbed, shot or burned alive in the village of Mazraat al-Qubair, a Sunni hamlet, at the hands of loyal Alawite paramilitary.
International envoy Kofi Annan told the United Nations Security Council that the Syrian government had “flouted” U.N. resolutions with the latest mass killings in the country.
U.N. leader Ban Ki-moon also told the Council that the killings in the village of Tremseh were an “outrageous escalation” of the conflict.
“The use of artillery, tanks and helicopters which has been confirmed by UNSMIS is a violation of the Syrian government’s obligations and commitment to cease the use of heavy weapons in population centers,” Annan said in a letter obtained by AFP to the 15-nation council.
France said the killings “stiffened resolve, [which] must now be shown with the threat of sanctions from the Security Council. The time has come for everyone to assume their responsibilities,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said.
At the United Nations, the Security Council met for new talks on a Syria resolution, with discussions having so far failed to narrow differences over rival resolutions proposed by Russia and the Western powers.
Britain, France, the United States, Germany and Portugal have proposed a resolution that would impose sanctions on Syria if Assad’s regime does not halt violence and work with an international peace plan.
Russia is proposing a rival resolution that renews the mandate of the U.N. mission in Syria, which ends on July 20, and has said sanctions are unacceptable.
The opposition Syrian National Council urged the Security Council to pass a binding resolution against Assad’s regime.
“To stop this bloody madness which threatens the entity of Syria, as well as peace and the security in the region and in the world, requires an urgent and sharp resolution of the Security Council under Chapter 7 [of the U.N. Charter] which protects the Syrian people,” it said.
Chapter 7 allows for punitive measures against regimes considered a threat to the peace, including economic sanctions and military intervention.
Russian Deputy U.N. Ambassador Alexander Pankin said Thursday that Moscow was “definitely against” Chapter 7.
Russia said Friday that it would urge Annan to work more closely with the Syrian opposition at talks in Moscow next week, and called for an inquiry into the Tremseh “bloody atrocity.”
The Foreign Ministry said the massacre served the interests of people who wanted a sectarian conflict in Syria, but did not directly apportion blame.
“There is no question in our mind that this atrocity is advantageous to forces that do not seek peace and instead stubbornly try to cultivate seeds of inter-ethnic violence and civil war on Syrian soil,” the statement said.
Russia has repeatedly defended Assad at the U.N. Security Council since the start of the uprising in Syria 16 months ago and military sources said that Russian warships had left this week for Syria, where Moscow has a naval maintenance facility.
Annan’s spokesman in Geneva said the envoy expected to meet President Vladimir Putin in Moscow Monday.
“To be honest, we do not see our partners being as ready [as Russia] to work with the opposition, and Kofi Annan is the main mediator of this process,” Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov was quoted as saying by Interfax.
Protesters took to the streets Friday under the slogan “Remove Kofi Annan, the servant of Assad and Iran.”