BEIRUT: At least 21 people were killed Tuesday in an attack in northern Syria, activists said, and members of a team of U.N. monitors caught in the battle said they were left in rebel hands.
Reuters asked one of the four monitors by phone if they were being held prisoner. He did not reply. Another said: “We are safe with the [rebel] Free Army.”
A spokesman for the rebel military council said the rebels were working on a safe exit for them.
“They are now with the Free Army which is protecting them. If they leave, the regime will terminate them because they have witnessed one of its crimes and it does not want them to tell the truth,” he told Reuters.
Insurgents and pro-government media blamed each other for the attack in Khan Sheikhoun in northern Idlib province.
The monitor told Reuters gunfire had erupted as a seven-man U.N. team toured Khan Sheikhoun, then a blast damaged one of the group’s vehicles.
Other rebel and opposition sources put the death toll from the attack as high as 66.
Pro-government Addounia TV said “gunmen” had opened fire on the monitors, without reference to casualties.
Internet footage appeared to show a white vehicle like those used by monitors with damage to its front end. In Damascus, Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, the head of the U.N. monitoring mission, told reporters the team was safe, without elaborating.
A U.K.-based rights group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said President Bashar Assad’s forces had opened fire on a funeral procession in the town, about 220 km north of Damascus.
The group said a total of 46 people had been killed by government forces across the country. There was no independent confirmation of any of the claims and counterclaims from Syria, which has limited journalists’ access during its uprising.
The attack came hours after the Syrian National Council, an umbrella group in which the influence of Islamists is extensive, re-elected Burhan Ghalioun, a sociologist long resident in France, as its leader for another three months.
People involved in the vote said the secular Ghalioun was viewed as acceptable to Syria’s array of sects and ethnicities.
Damascus said more than half of eligible voters turned out for a parliamentary election last week, part of reforms it says show Assad’s intent to resolve the uprising peacefully.
Khalaf al-Azzawi, head of the judiciary body that oversaw the election, said 51 percent of eligible voters had turned out, down slightly from an election in 2007 when the rule of Assad’s Baath party was unchallenged.
At least one independent figure made it into the assembly, according to results Azzawi read out in a televised news conference in Damascus. No figures were given for turnout in cities and towns under siege by government forces.
“The election gave the people the broadest possible representation,” he told a televised news conference in Damascus. “The election took place with full transparency, democracy, integrity, supervised and monitored by independent judicial councils which were not pressured by any side.”
Opposition leaders dismissed the election in advance as a ruse to buy more time for crushing dissent and said voting was not feasible in areas under continued siege and shelling from Assad’s security forces.
The vote follows amendments to Syria’s constitution to allow more political parties, a move Damascus has cited as evidence of good faith to move toward a political solution to the bloodshed.
A peace plan brokered by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan in April calls for the release of detainees and for peaceful protests to be allowed.
Persistent bloodshed since has led Saudi Arabia to warn that Annan’s plan is losing credibility. For Saudi Arabia, the demise of Assad would deal a welcome blow to his backers in Iran, Riyadh’s rival for influence in the Gulf.
Elsewhere on Syria’s battleground, opposition activists said government forces killed two insurgents in the eastern oil town of Deir al-Zour and continued a campaign of arrests that they said had seen hundreds rounded up in recent days.
The Annan plan also calls on Assad’s forces and rebels to allow free distribution of humanitarian aid, over which the United Nations is at loggerheads with Syria.
The United Nations has rebuffed a demand by Damascus that it manage the delivery of all humanitarian aid to a million people in areas stricken by the conflict.
“That position is a non-starter ... as it should be,” said one U.N. diplomat. “OCHA [U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] can’t allow the Syrian government to use it as a way to get people [they want to arrest] or to deliver aid only to government supporters.”
On Tuesday, relief group Medecins sans Frontieres said that its fieldwork in the northern Idlib region indicated health facilities were being targeted by combatants, and called on all sides to the conflict to “respect the physical integrity of wounded persons, doctors and health care facilities.”