Middle East

Nearly 100 dead in Homs massacre

A man walks past buildings destroyed by Syrian air force strikes in the Damascus suburb of Douma.

BEIRUT: Around 100 people were shot, stabbed or possibly burned to death by government forces in the Syrian city of Homs, a monitoring group and activists said Thursday, as fierce fighting raged across the country.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said women and children were among 106 people killed by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad forces who stormed Haswiya, a poor district on the edge of Homs, Tuesday. An activist network based inside Syria put the death toll at 91.

The massacre in the central city came the same day twin explosions killed 87 people at Aleppo University in the north, according to the group.

Activists said 17 members of the Khazam family had been killed during the raid on Haswiya.

“The Observatory has the names of 14 members of one family, including three children, and information on other families who were completely killed, including one of 32 people,” Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Observatory, told Reuters.

“This needs to be investigated by the United Nations,” said Abdelrahman, a Syrian who has documented human rights violations in Syria since 2006 and now reports on killings by both sides.

Abu Yazan, an opposition activist in Homs, said the rebel forces occasionally entered the farmland of Haswiya to attack a nearby military academy.

“Assad’s forces punish civilians for allowing the rebels to enter the area,” he said.

For its part, the Syrian Revolution General Commission said 91 people were killed, blaming government troops and “shabbiha” paramilitaries.

They said some of the bodies of the victims were burned by the attackers, who also pursued fleeing residents into nearby orchards.

It accused the regime of stoking sectarianism by singling out Sunni families in the attack, although the area has Sunni, Christian and Alawite inhabitants.

Speaking to the Associated Press, a government official in Damascus flatly denied the reports of carnage, saying no such killings took place in the area at all. He said “the army protects civilians and their properties,” and accused rebels of using civilians as “human shields.”

However, the pro-government daily Al-Watan reported Thursday that Syrian troops advanced “cleansing the villages of Haswiya and Dweir as well as their fields” from gunmen. It did not elaborate. An amateur video posted online showed five women surrounded by children as they sat on the floor describing what happened.

“They entered homes, slaughtered women and children then burned them,” said one of the veiled women holding a young boy. “They slaughtered members of the same families then turned the diesel heaters on them.”

She added that some homes were robbed as the soldiers were looking for money and jewelry.

Fighting raged throughout most of Syria’s 14 provinces, the Observatory said, including the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, a suburb of Damascus. In Husseiniyeh, warplanes dropped three missiles killing 11 civilians, among them seven women, three women and a man, said the Observatory.

The Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees network of anti-regime activists also reported clashes in the town of Beit Saham, just south of the capital and near the international airport, and that an air raid killed at least 15 people in the town of Kfar Nabouda in Hama.

State-run TV said clashes in the northern town of Ras al-Ain near the Turkish border continued between rebels and members of the government-leaning Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD. The Observatory said at least eight rebels and one PYD fighter were killed.

A Turkish official said one man was wounded on the Turkish side of the border when he was hit in the neck by a stray bullet fired during the clashes.

The Syrian government and the opposition blame each other for two explosions at Aleppo’s university Tuesday which killed at least 87 people in the deadliest attack on civilians to hit the city since rebels laid siege to it over the summer.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said the attack was “beyond horrific.”

“According to eyewitnesses, regime jets launched the strikes,” she tweeted.

Russia, which has backed Assad throughout the revolt both in rhetoric and through its veto of U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning Assad, dismissed suggestions Damascus was behind the explosions.

“I cannot imagine any bigger blasphemy,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists during a visit to Tajikistan.

Separately, two Russian ships heading for a naval exercise off Syria this month are picking up munitions on their way to the port of Tartous, news agencies reported.

Russia leases a naval maintenance and supply facility at Tartous that is its only military base outside the former Soviet Union.

A Russian General Staff source told the Itar-Tass news agency that the landing ship Kaliningrad had docked at the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk to pick up munitions and another landing ship, the Alexander Shabalin, was due there for the same purpose. It was not clear who the munitions were for, however.

“It’s possible that the ships are delivering some kind of munitions for the Syrians, [or] it’s possible that they are carrying it to the Russian [naval base],” said Andrei Frolov, a naval expert at the Moscow-based military think tank CAST.

The Defense Ministry declined to comment on the reports.

Itar-Tass cited an unidentified military source as saying that the warships would join at least seven others off Syria for what the Defense Ministry has said will be Russia’s biggest naval exercise in decades.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 18, 2013, on page 1.




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