Middle East

Syria denies Tremseh 'massacre' as U.N. pursues probe

DAMASCUS: Syria denied its armed forces carried out a massacre in Tremseh but said 37 gunmen and two civilians were killed in clashes there with rebels, as UN monitors returned to the village on Sunday.

Rights activists say more than 150 people were massacred in Tremseh , which if confirmed would make it one of the bloodiest episodes of Syria's 16-month uprising. Even so, it has already galvanised diplomatic efforts.

Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon head for Russia and China on Monday to press the two UN Security Council doubters to back tougher action against President Bashar al-Assad to halt the slaughter in Syria.

The visits by the UN-Arab League envoy and the UN leader come at a crucial new stage in the conflict. The Security Council has until Friday to renew the UN mission in Syria but is divided over Western calls to add sanctions.

"So divided that maybe Annan and Ban now have the most influence over Russia and China to get anything done," said one senior UN council diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

On the ground, troops bombarded rebel areas in several parts of Syria as violence killed at least 55 people on Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Among the dead was a girl who died along with three other people when the army rained shells on the town of Rastan, a rebel stronghold in the central province of Homs, the Britain-based monitoring group said.

Speaking at a news conference in Damascus, foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said Syrian government forces did not use helicopters and tanks in Thursday's assault on Tremseh .

"What happened was not an attack by the army on innocent civilians," said Makdissi.

"The aim of this news conference is to tell people that what happened was not a massacre... It was a clash between regular forces and armed groups who do not believe in a peaceful solution. This is the reality, politically and militarily."

Makdissi staunchly denied reports suggesting the army had used aircraft in the assault.

"This is absolutely not true. Only troop carriers and lights weapons were used, the most powerful of weapons being RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades)," he said.

UN observers entered Tremseh to continue their investigations, after they saw blood and evidence of the use of heavy weapons as well as burned out homes during a trip to the village on Saturday. They did not give a casualty toll.

"On the basis of this preliminary mission, UNSMIS can confirm that an attack, using a variety of weapons, took place in Tremseh on July 12," said Sausan Ghosheh, spokeswoman for the UN Supervision Mission in Syria.

"The attack on Tremseh appeared targeted at specific groups and houses, mainly of army defectors and activists. There were pools of blood and blood spatters in rooms of several homes together with bullet cases," she said.

"The UN team also observed a burned school and damaged houses with signs of internal burning in five of them," Ghosheh said, adding that a "wide range of weapons were used, including artillery, mortars and small arms."

Makdissi said "only five buildings where there were very sophisticated weapons were targeted."

The Syrian Observatory said more than 150 people were killed in the assault which it alleged was a massacre carried out by the army backed by pro-regime shabiha militiamen.

But Makdissi, citing an unidentified source who claimed to have buried them, said that "37 armed men were killed and two civilians only."

The Observatory's Rami Abdel Rahman had previously told AFP it "might be the biggest massacre committed in Syria since the start of the revolution" in March 2011.

Tremseh is a majority Sunni village situated near Alawite hamlets. President Assad belongs to the Alawite community -- an offshoot of Shiite Islam -- although most Syrians are Sunni.

The international community has reacted with outrage to the latest killings, which have added urgency to deadlocked UN Security Council negotiations on a Syria resolution.

A draft statement which said the Syria government is in "violation" of its international commitments was circulated among the 15 council nations on Friday, diplomats said. Russia's envoys said they could not agree without approval from Moscow.

Russia has led the resistance and Annan is to meet President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during two days of talks in Moscow, said his spokesman Ahmad Fawzi.

China has supported Russia's rejections and Ban heads for Beijing on Monday, officially for a China-Africa summit. But Syria will top his talks agenda when he meets President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and other leaders, said a UN official.

Ban has said that international inaction on Syria would be giving "a license for further massacres." He already urged China to use its "influence" to back Annan's peace plan when he spoke with Yang by telephone on Saturday, said UN spokesman Martin Nesirky.





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