Syria denies it carried out massacre in Tremseh


DAMASCUS YESTERDAY denied the charge by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan that the army had used heavy weapons and helicopters in an assault on the village of Tremseh last week as UN monitors paid their second visit to the area.

Foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said Mr Annan had sent a “rushed” letter to foreign minister Walid Muallem before ascertaining the facts and dismissed opposition assertions that the military had massacred 100 to 200 people.

“What happened wasn’t an attack on civilians,” he said, giving a death toll of 37 rebels and two civilians.

“Government forces did not use planes, or helicopters, or tanks, or artillery. The heaviest weapon was an RPG [rocket propelled grenade].”

He said Tremseh had become a rebel “stronghold” from which gunmen launched repeated attacks on government forces. Soldiers had entered the village in armoured troop carriers and routed the rebels.

“It was a clash between regular forces and illegal armed groups who do not believe in a peaceful solution,” he said, adding that that the UN had verified the government’s account of the action.

Following their second visit to the village yesterday, the monitors confirmed that the attack appeared “targeted at army defectors and activists,” said mission spokeswoman Sausan Ghosheh.

The team “observed over 50 houses that were burned or destroyed. Pools of blood and brain matter were observed in a number of homes.”

According to 27 villagers interviewed by the team, the attack began with shelling at dawn on Thursday followed by ground operations involving house-to-house searches for specific individuals. Some were killed, others were taken away.

The monitors confirmed the use of artillery, mortars and small arms. A rebel Free Syrian Army officer, Saleh al-Subaai, was shot dead, and a doctor and his children were killed by a mortar that hit their home. The number of casualties was “unclear”.

The mission called on the government to “cease the use of heavy weapons in population centres and take all necessary measures to reduce civilian casualties”. The monitors urged all parties to end the violence and pursue a peaceful Syrian-led transition.

Two journalists who visited the village issued contradictory reports. Spanish photographer Daniel Leal Olivas told al-Jazeera he had seen tank tracks, mortar shells and burned houses.

Dutch journalist Sander van Hoorn could not verify the opposition’s claims of a massacre but “ruled out” the government’s version of events.

The escalation of fighting over the past two months prompted the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to reclassify the conflict. ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said Syria is in the grip of a “non-international armed conflict” and “humanitarian law applies to all areas where hostilities are taking place”. This means the appropriate amount of force should be used and attacks on civilians banned.

Abdel Basset Sayda, head of the expatriate Syrian National Council, called on US president Barack Obama to take action on Syria rather than worry about prospects of re-election. Mr Sayda called on the West to “carry out their responsibilities through the security council” by adopting a resolution to “force [the] regime to stop killing Syrians”.

The Syrian army reportedly bombarded areas of Deir al-Zor, Hama and Homs yesterday, and a French agency correspondent said there had been shelling near Aleppo and clashes were said to have taken place in two townships south of the city.

A bomb stuck to the side of a bus carrying security personnel reportedly exploded on Damascus’s southern ring road.

On the diplomatic front, Mr Annan is due to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin tomorrow while Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Tehran is prepared to invite government and opposition interlocutors for talks, a proposal certain to be rejected by the opposition.