Syria: Villagers killed as loyalists send warning

Syrian army soldiers, loyal to Bashar al-Assad, stand in front of some of the victims in Baida village. Picture: AP
Syrian army soldiers, loyal to Bashar al-Assad, stand in front of some of the victims in Baida village. Picture: AP
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Awakened by the sound of gunfire, Ahmad could hear the armed men knocking on his brother’s door, shouting insults and calling the family “dogs”.

Ahmad’s sister-in-law said the gunmen told her husband to “bow to your god, Bashar” – the Syrian president. She and her husband and their two teenage sons were dragged towards the village square.

When the violence was over, Ahmad ventured out from his hiding place in an attic. In less than two hours, Baida, his picturesque village near the Mediterranean, had become the scene of one of the worst mass killings in Syria’s two-year-old war.

As the country fragments under the weight of civil strife, troops loyal to Bashar al-Assad have made gains against rebel fighters in a counter-offensive to secure a corridor linking the capital Damascus with the president’s clan heartland on the coast.

Baida, a tiny pocket of rebel sympathisers surrounded by pro-Assad villages, was an ideal place for the government to deliver a harsh message.

International peace talks are expected to be held in Geneva next month, but there is little hope of a breakthrough to end a war that has already killed 80,000 – and left Baida a shell.

A few steps from his home, somewhere near the main village square, Ahmad discovered his brother’s body.

“He had been stripped of his clothes,” he said, reading from his own record of what he saw. He paused and composed himself. “He had been shot in the head, and the bullet left a gaping hole the size of a hand. His blood had been shed on the ground.”

For almost 90 minutes Ahmad described how he found torched bodies and evidence of mass killings: in one case 30 men, and in another, 20 women and children who had hidden in a small room.

He read out the names of the dead, their occupations, ages and relations to each other, and the positions of their bodies.

The attack left dozens of his relatives and neighbours dead. Ahmad recorded every detail so that history might judge.

It was 2 May, a Thursday and the start of a six-day holiday.

Many students had come home, and the men of the village had no plans to venture down to the coast to sell their vegetable crops, as many usually do. Children had no school that day.

The cocks had already crowed when armed men entered Baida, a close-knit village of narrow alleys that was home to 5,000 mostly Sunni Muslims.

Baida, visible from surrounding Alawite villages with whose inhabitants it had coexisted well enough before the war, sits just outside the small town of Banias, which overlooks Syria’s coastline from the hills.

According to opposition activists, what came next was a sectarian bloodbath followed by another in Ras al-Nabaa, the next village along.

The attack on Baida came shortly after rebels had attacked a bus carrying pro-Assad militiamen, killing six.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Britain, says at least 300 were killed in Baida and Ras al-Nabaa. Victims were buried in mass graves, activists say. Thousands fled.

The International Criminal Court in The Hague, which deals with war crimes, cannot investigate in Syria unless it receives a referral from the United Nations Security Council – something Russia and China have blocked.

The Syrian government has kept silent about Baida. But a Syrian intelligence officer, speaking anonymously, acknowledged that the perpetrators were government supporters, including some from the nearby villages.

Baida and Ras al-Nabaa had aligned themselves with the rebels, putting them in a precarious position amid their staunchly loyalist neighbours.

TODAY, like Ras al-Nabaa, Baida is a ghost town. Houses have been torched and hardly any women and only a few men remain. Tightly controlled by government security, the only way for a stranger to enter Baida is along a dirt road that snakes through the hills. This reporter – who must remain anonymous – made the journey to gather eyewitness testimony.

“I woke up to the sound of bullets before 7am,” Ahmad said. He fetched from another room his notebook, where he had meticulously recorded everything he saw.

Ahmad withheld his full name and public sector occupation for fear of reprisal.

“None of us knew what was happening. We couldn’t tell where the shells were falling,” he said, reading from his account.

His wife and children hid in the basement, and Ahmad went to his brother’s home, on the first floor of the family’s two- storey building. When the sound of gunfire kept getting closer, Ahmad’s mother urged her sons to hide.

Over the past two years, whenever government security forces raided the village, usually only men with suspected ties to rebels were arrested. Women and children were left alone. But this time, something made Ahmad hide, even though he had done nothing wrong. He went up to the attic, but his brother stayed put, arguing with their mother.

The list of victims included women and toddlers, the elderly and community leaders. Mohammad Taha, 90, was for decades the village shoemaker, even after he lost a leg in a car accident. There was Sheikh Omar Biyasi, 62, whose body Ahmad found alongside the sheikh’s slain wife and son, Hamzah, a medical student.

Sheikh Biyasi had been the village imam for 30 years. He was a government loyalist who alienated local people with his political views before resigning two years ago.

“Even though he always opposed the protests, they still killed him,” said Ahmad.

The Biyasi family suffered some of the worst losses, with 36 documented deaths. Ahmad found bodies belonging to the family in one small room; a mother and her three daughters and young son, who was at the local school with Ahmad’s children.

Before dark set in, Ahmad stumbled upon another chilling sight. Three charred bodies lay one on top of the other. “Smoke was still rising from one of them,” he said. One of them Ibrahim al-Shoghri, 69, who was mentally disabled.

THE bloodshed has left many Syrians wondering if the government is preparing for an Alawite state along the coast, home to the majority of the Shiite offshoot sect to which Assad and his clan belong.

One Alawite anti-government activist, who goes by the nom de guerre Sadeq, said it was unlikely Assad would establish a separate Alawite state, or homogenise it ethnically. But an autonomous region, something like Kurdistan, might be viable.

So far, there have been no direct clashes between rebels and government forces along the coast. Many Alawite villagers did not believe the rebels could make it to the mountains.

So when the rebels started to make verbal threats against the coast over the past few weeks, alarms went off, explained Sadeq. The killings in Baida and Ras al-Nabaa were a message to the rebels.

“It’s a reminder that the coast is a red line. That if they so much as think they can attack the coast, this is what will happen to the pockets of Sunni Muslims here,” he said. “It was ethnic cleansing, and the objective is to frighten.”

In nearby Tartous, a hefty, tattooed man who works for state intelligence said his command knew exactly what had unfolded in Baida and Ras al-Nabaa.

“It was the regime loyalists who did it, from the surrounding Alawite villages,” he said. “But they were not acting under orders. They carried it out on their own accord”

“The leadership has all the names of the perpetrators, but now is not the time to punish them for the crime.”

Britain denies it must wait until August to arm forces fighting Assad regime

Britain and France have said they do not have to wait until 1 August to arm rebels fighting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, contradicting European Union officials, but both countries stressed they had no plans to do so yet.

The warning came as senior United States Republican senator John McCain visited rebel-held areas yesterday on a brief trip to meet senior members of the opposition.

Mr McCain, a member of the armed services and foreign relations committees, favours providing arms to rebel forces in Syria and creation of a no-fly zone. He has stopped short of backing US ground troops in Syria.

EU governments failed to renew an arms embargo on Monday due to differences in opinion, opening the way for Britain and France to supply weapons.

But EU officials said the two countries had made a commitment not to do so before 1 August.

“That is not the case,” Foreign Secretary William Hague said yesterday, adding that Britain was not “excluded” from acting before then, but that it would not act alone if it chose to do so.

French foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said Paris also reserved the right to send arms immediately to Syrian rebels, but had no plans to do so.

Meanwhile, Israel’s defence chief said that a Russian plan to supply sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles to Syria was a “threat” and signalled that Israel is prepared to use force to stop the delivery.

The warning by defence minister Moshe Yaalon increased tensions with Moscow over the planned sale of S-300 surface to air missiles to Syria. Israel has been lobbying Moscow to halt the sale, fearing the missiles would upset the balance of power in the region and could slip into the hands of hostile groups, including the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, a close ally of the Syrian regime.

“Clearly this move is a threat to us,” Mr Yaalon said yesterday.

“At this stage I can’t say there is an escalation. The shipments have not been sent on their way yet. And I hope that they will not be sent,” he said. But “if God forbid they do reach Syria, we will know what to do.”

In Moscow, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, would not say whether Russia has shipped any of the S-300s, which have a range of up to 125 miles and the capability to track and strike multiple targets simultaneously.

But he insisted that Moscow is not going to abandon the deal despite strong western and Israeli criticism.

He said the missiles could be a deterrent against foreign intervention in Syria and would not be used against Syrian rebels, who do not have an air force.

“We believe that such steps to a large extent help restrain some ‘hotheads’ considering a scenario to give an international dimension to this conflict,” he said.