Reports of Syria massacre, with scores dead, draw swift condemnations
ISTANBUL — U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan and the Syrian opposition on Friday denounced President Bashar Assad after a massive military assault against a village involving tanks, artillery and helicopters a day earlier caused the deaths of possibly hundreds of civilians.
Russia, Syria’s principal international backer, also condemned the assault and called for an investigation, but stopped short of ascribing blame. Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said vaguely that “forces” were stoking sectarian violence, a possible reference to foreign nations such as Qatar and Turkey that are backing the Syrian opposition.
“We have no doubt that this atrocity benefits the forces that seek no peace but obstinately keep trying to grow the seeds of inter-confessional strife and civil conflict in Syria,” Lukashevich said in Moscow, according to the Russian Itar-Tass news agency.
People in Tremseh, a predominantly Sunni village near the city of Hama, reported that 305 people were killed, many of them while fleeing the assault by tanks, artillery, regular forces and pro-Assad “shabiha” militia, the opposition Syrian National Council said.
Foreign reporters are not free to move about in Syria, and the unarmed U.N. observers have ceased on-site monitoring following threats to their safety, so this number could not be verified.
The SNC plans to send a delegation to the United Nations to plead for a Security Council warning to Syria under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which authorizes the use of force, Abdulbaset Sieda, SNC president, told reporters in Istanbul.
The head of the U.N. military observers in Syria said his military observers watched the Syrian military using mechanized units, indirect fire as well as helicopters in the assault against Tremseh. It came just three days after Assad sat down with peace envoy Annan at which he proposed naming a negotiator for talks with the Syrian opposition in order to establish a transitional government.
That gesture now appears to have been a ruse, evoking strong words from the even-tempered Annan and the fury of the Syrian opposition.
Annan said he was “shocked and appalled” by the news of intense fighting, significant casualties and the confirmed use of heavy weapons including artillery, tanks and helicopters. “I condemn these atrocities in the strongest possible terms,” Annan said.
He said the assault was “in violation of the government’s undertaking to cease the use of heavy weapons in population centers.”
The Russian government had just hosted talks with Sieda and other Syrian opposition leaders on finding a peaceful resolution to the 16-month conflict, an anti-government uprising that turned violent after Assad deployed the regular military and all his security services against civilians.
Sieda said the situation for Syrians was “unbearable” and that opposition members “hold Russia responsible for the Tremseh massacre.” He called on sympathizers in the Arab and Muslim world to take to the streets to protest the massacre.
The massacre certainly dashed hopes, if there remained any, for a peaceful outcome in the near term. Under an international plan drafted by Annan, Assad and the opposition were to name representatives who would hammer out plans for a transitional government. Assad named his interlocutor in a surprise move on Monday. But Sieda told reporters here that for the Syrian National Council, “there is no dialogue with killers, no compromise with killers.”
He said the SNC — whose senior officials are scattered around Europe, with a concentration in Istanbul — first got word about the massacre at 5 a.m. Thursday. Townspeople reported that tanks were moved into several neighboring villages and, together with other heavy equipment, surrounded Tremseh.
“No one could flee the shelling and bombardment,” Sieda said, adding that it went on for two hours and focused on the town school. He said people took to the streets in fear. Then the army began its ground assault from the east and north.
When townspeople tried to flee, the shabiha militia met them. Sieda said children trying to flee were killed in their tracks.