Opposition in Syria say attack left 220 dead


UNITED NATIONS observers in Syria yesterday described an attack on a village in the Hama region – where opposition sources say about 220 people were killed by forces loyal to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad – as an extension of an operation in the region by the Syrian Arab Air Force.

The White House said that these further atrocities by the Assad regime should eliminate any doubt that a co-ordinated international response was necessary at the UN – an apparent reference to Russian and Chinese reluctance to join condemnation of Mr Assad.

Opposition sources said that about 220 people in Tremseh, in the central Syrian region of Hama, were killed when the area was bombarded by helicopter gunships and tanks. The UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan said he was “shocked and appalled” by reports of the massacre.

“I condemn these atrocities in the strongest possible terms,” he said, as he castigated the Syrian government for violating an undertaking not to employ heavy weapons in population centres.

Mr Annan told the UN Security Council by letter that the claims, which he evidently believed, showed UN resolutions were being ignored, making it imperative the organisation signal that there would be consequences.

Although the death toll has not been confirmed and circumstances of the slaughter have not been clarified, Gen Robert Mood, chief of the UN monitoring mission in Syria, said the team based in nearby Hama had observed the scene at a distance and verified “continuous fighting . . . in the area of Tremseh” involving “mechanised units, indirect fire as well as helicopters”. Monitors were on standby, he said, waiting until there was a “credible ceasefire” before determining the facts, which are being disputed.

The state news agency, Sana, said “dozens of members of armed terrorist groups” had raided the village and fired on residents until government forces intervened and killed or captured many of the gunmen. Sana said 50 villagers and three soldiers had died.

Some Syrian opposition activists said Tremseh was heavily shelled and the mosque, where villagers had taken refuge, was brought down, killing many, before elements of the pro-government Shabiha militia slew survivors. It was argued that the Tremseh incident followed a pattern set in the Huleh region in May when 108 civilians were said to have been killed, and in the hamlet of Qubair in June when 78 were reported dead.

Regime opponents have posted images on the internet which they say show the bloodied corpses of 15 young men slain in the village but observers remarked that no women and children have been shown as in the earlier incidents.

The Britain-based opposition Syria Observatory for Human Rights said it had the names of 30 victims.

Manhal, an anti-regime activist based in Hama, told al-Jazeera that of the 74 people buried yesterday, most were rebels.

Another activist at the opposition Sham News Network said the slaughter followed an attack on an army convoy by rebels affiliated with the Free Syrian Army.

“The [regime’s] army staged a counter-attack with the support of reinforcements from [nearby] Alawite villages. The [rebels] resisted for an hour,” before being overcome.

The expatriate opposition Syrian National Council has reiterated its call for the security council to adopt a resolution under chapter seven of the UN charter, which deals with threats to international peace and security. The US, UK, France and Germany have submitted such a resolution, condemning Syrian repression and calling for non-military sanctions against the regime if it does not adhere to Mr Annan’s peace plan within 10 days.

Russia, a permanent council member opposed to invoking chapter seven, could veto the resolution. Russia has circulated its own draft calling for an extension of the UN monitoring mission’s mandate.

Russia is set to urge Mr Annan to engage more actively with the Syrians when he travels to Moscow on Monday.

Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov recently met Michel Kilo, a veteran opposition figure, and Abdel Basset Sayda, head of the Syrian National Council.

In the wake of the Tremseh incident, China said it would “seriously” study the western draft resolution but urged members to reach consensus. Beijing and Russia both vetoed previous resolutions condemning Syria.

Meanwhile, the US has warned that Syrian officials would be “held accountable” if they failed to secure the country’s arsenal of chemical weapons.

The comment followed a report in the Wall Street Journal that intelligence sources suggest that stocks of sarin gas (a deadly nerve agent), mustard gas and cyanide were being moved by the regime from storage sites. It said the reasons for the transfer are unclear.