BEIRUT: The slaying of some 10 people in a Sunni neighborhood on the outskirts of the Syrian town of Tal Kalakh on the Lebanese border Saturday is threatening to derail a precarious cease-fire deal in the troubled town.
Nonetheless, a leading peace negotiator involved in the discussions told The Daily Star Thursday talks were still under way and expressed cautious optimism that the cease-fire in the fractious town would hold.
Sheikh Habib Fundi, a leading secular leader heading the negotiations between rebel and Syrian army leaders, along with local officials, said he was “optimistic” the tentative agreement would hold.
The diverse sectarian-mixed town, situated near the Lebanese border, is on a traditional smugglers’ route that has served as a key corridor for opposition fighters and aid supplies from northern Lebanon to Syria.
Largely in opposition hands, it has been the subject of heavy government bombardment and rocked by a series of sectarian-motivated violent incidents.
The Syrian army now encircles the town, but violence has been kept to a minimum for the last three months, residents and officials said, largely as a result of a locally negotiated truce between rebel fighters inside the city and the Syrian army leadership, brokered with the help of community and religious leadership.
When The Daily Star visited the town last month, rebels patrolled the streets unarmed and said they were working on a redraft of a latest cease-fire agreement with Syrian authorities. The area was tense, but calm.
Just days later, that calm was shattered when reports emerged of what opposition activists described as a “massacre” of 10 civilians in the Burj neighborhood, on the northeastern outskirts of Tal Kalakh.
Details remain murky with regime officials and opposition groups trading blame for the killings, which included mostly women and at least one child. Opposition activists said thugs from neighboring Alawite neighborhoods raided the mainly Sunni village, slaughtering the group, four of whom belonged to one family, with knives and swords.
One rebel source, Mohammad, told The Daily Star the massacre occurred as an act of revenge after an exchange of gunfire that started when Syrian army checkpoints outside the city initially opened fire on worshippers as they exited a mosque after Friday prayers.
“The regime violated the truce and fired on the worshipers when they came out of the mosque,” Mohammad said.
“The regime forces then tried to enter the town but were met with opposition fire. The next night Alawites from Ain al-Hadra came and attacked, and committed the massacre,” he said.
The Syrian government in turn claimed “terrorists” committed a massacre against the “peaceful citizens in the city of Tal Kalakh,” according to the state news agency SANA.
“An official source said that the terrorist group stormed the Burj neighborhood and killed 10 people, most of them children and women, before one of the units from our armed forces intervened,” the agency said.
Fundi called the incident “worrying” but would not be drawn on who breached the cease-fire first, while confirming the victims were Sunni.
“Nobody really knows who started the fighting. There are a lot of accusations flying around.”
He said while the incident was “worrying” he was still optimistic cease-fire negotiations were on track.
“The fighting erupted all around, but there had been nothing for the last four days,” he said.
“We are at the very last stages of the cease-fire agreement. We are still talking and ironing out the differences. I am optimistic.”