Syria rejects UN criticism
Syria today denied accusations by special envoy Kofi Annan that state forces used heavy weapons or helicopters in clashes in the village of Tremseh last week.
An attack in Tremseh appeared to target the homes of army defectors and activists, a statement by the spokesman for the UN observers in Syria said. "A wide range of weapons were used, including artillery, mortars and small arms," the statement added.
The observers entered the village yesterday after activists said about 220 people had been killed there by President Bashar al-Assad's troops.The observers saw damaged houses and a burned school and planned to return to the village on Sunday, the statement said, adding the number of casualties was unclear.
The United States has branded Syria's leaders murderers after the assault by Assad's troops, but there was no break in the deadlock among world powers over how to bring about an end to the bloodshed.
However, Jihad Makdissi, spokesman for Syria's Foreign Ministry, said security forces killed 37 fighters and two civilians in a campaign against the town, from which the government said rebels were launching attacks on other areas.
"Government forces did not use planes, or helicopters, or tanks or artillery. The heaviest weapon used was an RPG [rocket propelled grenade]," Mr Makdissi told reporters at a news conference in Damascus.
"Yesterday we received a letter from Mr. Kofi Annan addressed to the Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem. The least that can be said about this letter about what happened in Tremseh is that it did not rely on facts. As diplomatically as possible, we say that this letter was very rushed."
UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon had already condemned what a UN reconnaissance mission on Friday said was "indiscriminate" bombardment of the central Hama province village, including rocket-firing helicopters. He questioned Assad's commitment to a UN-sponsored peace plan for Syria.
The bloodshed continued yesterday, when British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 33 people were killed, several by an army bombardment in Homs province.
Accounts from opposition activists cited a death toll in Tremseh ranging from over 100 to more than twice that - one of the bloodiest incidents in the 17-month uprising against Assad that Western powers say has left 17,000 dead.
"We were surrounded from four sides . . . with tanks and armoured vehicles, and the helicopters were hovering above," said an unidentified man on video footage purportedly filmed in Tremseh and posted on the Internet yesterday.
"They burned people in front of our eyes, they held the men like this and stabbed them," he said, pointing to his chest and then to an artery in his throat. He said his cousin's throat was slit. "They took out people's eyes."
One group said rebel fighters rushed to reinforce the village after it came under attack by infantry, artillery and aircraft, leading to a battle that lasted seven hours.
In a pattern seen elsewhere in recent months, rebels accused local irregular militiamen known as shabbiha, from Assad's Alawite minority, of swooping on the battered village, home mostly to Sunni Muslims, and of killing their neighbours in a sectarian attack some called ethnic cleansing.
A Tremseh activist named Ahmed told Reuters there were 60 bodies at the mosque, of whom 20 were identified: "There are more bodies in the fields, bodies in the rivers and in houses."
One piece of film to appear on the Internet showed the corpses of 15 young men with faces or shirts drenched in blood. Other videos showed rows of bodies wrapped in blankets, sheets and makeshift shrouds, some leaking blood. One man pulled aside a blanket to display a burnt corpse. Men placed wrapped bodies in a breeze-block trench for burial.