‘Bloodiest day yet’ in Syrian conflict as 200 feared dead
Syrian forces have been accused of killing up to 200 people in an attack on a village in what could be the most deadly crackdown of the unrest so far.
Opposition activists said that government forces shelled Tremseh heavily before pro-regime gunmen moved in, killing scores of people.
International envoy Kofi Annan said he was “shocked and appalled” by the reports.
The accounts of the killings and death tolls varied widely, with claims of numbers of the dead ranging from between 30 and 200 people.
The head of the UN monitoring mission in Syria blamed government forces, saying they attacked from the air and ground in “continuous violence”.
The killings were likely to fuel debate among world powers, who remain sharply divided on what to try next to stop Syria’s violence. All previous efforts, including a peace plan brokered by Mr Annan, have failed to quell the bloodshed.
Yet much remains unclear about what happened in the isolated village of farmers in central Syria, including why it was targeted and whether all of the dead were civilians. One activist group said dozens of the dead were rebel fighters.
Amateur videos showed the bodies of 17 people. One clip showed a young man wailing over the body of an elderly grey-haired man wrapped in a blanket and lying in the street.
“Come on, Dad. For the sake of God, get up,” the man sobs. A blast is heard in the background.
Activist claims and videos could not be independently verified. But the violence was certain to cast new doubts over about whether the international community’s diplomatic efforts to end the crisis remain relevant.
Mr Annan singled out the Syrian government for criticism for using heavy weaponry in populated areas, something it was supposed to have stopped doing three months ago.
Major-General Robert Mood, head of the UN monitoring mission, told reporters in Damascus that a group of observers who were about three miles from the village during the violence confirmed the use of heavy weaponry and attack helicopters.
He said his team was ready to investigate if a ceasefire agreement is reached.
The nearly 300 observers in Syria have largely stopped moving around because of continued violence. Government forces have also prevented them from visiting sites of past massacres.
Syria’s violence has grown increasingly chaotic in recent months and the protests calling for political change that began in March 2011 have largely been overshadowed by the scores of rebel groups now waging an armed insurgency against the government.
A string of large-scale suicide bombings has raised suspicions that al-Qaeda fighters are also now operating in Syria.
Activists often blame attacks on shabiha, pro-government thugs who do not directly answer to any military structure – this allows the government to deny responsibility for such groups’ actions.
For its part, the Syrian government said more than 50 people were killed in Tremseh when Syrian forces clashed with “armed gangs” that were terrorising village residents.
The regime has referred to those seeking its overthrow as terrorists, rather than Syrians seeking reform, throughout the 16-month uprising.
Two activists reached via Skype, who said they were in villages near Tremseh, gave similar accounts of the attack.
Bassel Darwish said the army surrounded the village to prevent people from fleeing and pounded it until early afternoon with artillery and tank shells and missiles from a helicopter.
He said: “Lots of people tried to get the families out but they weren’t able to.”
After the shelling, the army entered with pro-government thugs, who gunned down and stabbed residents in the streets, he said.
Mr Darwish said activists had compiled the names of about 200 dead, but he did not share the list.
He said chaos reigned in the area as residents searched for the dead and missing.
Another activist, Abu Ghazi al-Hamwi, said local rebels, often called the Free Syrian Army, tried to fight off the army attack but failed.
He said: “They kept shelling the city and the weapons that the Free Army had were not enough to keep them out. So they started trying to get out the wounded and the families by clashing in one place to open a way out.”
He, too, put the number of dead at more than 200.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 160 people had been killed in Hama province, most of them in Tremseh, though it only had the names of about 40 of them. It said dozens of the dead were rebel fighters and that 30 bodies were totally burned; others had been stabbed.
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