NEAR HAMA, Syria — A massacre that took as many as 80 lives in Qubeir may have had its origins in a warning that government sympathizers issued to the villages residents against harboring known anti-government activists.
A resident of Qubeir who survived the massacre said Friday that the attack took place shortly after an activist wanted by the government, known as Abu Hassan, went to Qubeir. When an army unit based nearby was notified of Abu Hassans presence, it began to shell the village and then sent in six tanks, accompanied by local militiamen, who killed the villagers with gunfire, sticks and knives.
There had been threats against the village before not to harbor people who are wanted, said the resident, who used the pseudonym Laith al Hamawy for fear of retaliation from the Syrian government.
The deaths at Qubeir, which is near the city of Hama, are the latest in what has becoming a pattern of mass killings that have followed government assaults on villages. More than 80 women and children were shot or hacked to death in May in the village of Houla in an attack that bore a striking similarity to what happened at Qubeir government shelling, followed by house-to-house searches and killings. At both Qubeir and Houla, survivors said militiamen burned bodies and homes.
The massacres mark a grisly turn in Syrias violence, which defies efforts by the United Nations special envoy, former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, to mediate a cease-fire. Casualties overall have dropped since Annans peace plan went into effect April 12. But that progress is hardly visible against the backdrop of the massacres, which also have obscured stepped-up attacks on government troops by what are clearly better armed and financed rebel forces.
The rebels now control a widening swath of territory in north and central Syria. They use it as a base for storing and manufacturing weapons and for launching attacks against government soldiers in what previously had been relatively peaceful parts of the country. In May, at least 404 government soldiers and police officers lost their lives in combat with the rebels, according to burial notices published by the Syrian government news agency, SANA, and June appears headed to another high total, with SANA reporting the burial of 150 soldiers in just the first seven days of the month. In March, SANA reported only 176 such deaths; in April, that number was 363.
Rebel units operating out of safe havens here show none of the desperation for weapons and ammunition that plagued them as recently as February. One unit commander reported that he recently received $20,000 in cash from a Free Syrian Army official in Turkey and that more money was expected. Another unit on Friday proudly displayed six new Belgian FAL assault rifles that it had received, along with ammunition gifts, the rebels said, from Saudi Arabia, which has pledged both money and weapons to the forces fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad.
.Annan, who met Friday in Washington with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said earlier this week that he feared the massacres were a sign that Syria was descending into sectarian violence between members of the Alawite sect, the offshoot of Shiite Islam to which Assad and his ruling elite belong, and the Sunni Muslim majority.
On Friday, some rebels echoed that sentiment.
There are some Alawite towns that have taken part in the violence, and we will take revenge, one fighter said.
U.N. officials entered Qubeir on Friday. Journalists who were traveling with them reported that the village was empty of people and that buildings had been gutted and burned, with some appearing to have been hit by rocket or artillery fire. Pieces of flesh and the smell of burned bodies were evident in some of the homes, the journalists said.
Hamawy, the survivor, said that he had accompanied U.N. monitors to the village on Friday and left again when they did.
Hamawy said Qubeir was home to about 150 people who all belong to the same extended family, and that previously there had been demonstrations against the government in the nearby village of Marzaaf.
Abu Hassan, the anti-government activist, had come to Qubeir from his home village of Jrejis to harvest wheat from land he owns in the area. After the army learned of his presence, it fired artillery at Jrejis, Qubeir and Marzaaf for an hour, Hamawy said, before the tanks entered Qubeir.
Hamawy said he was nearby when the attack took place and spoke with his brother by phone until the line went dead. Returning to the village a few hours later, Hamawy found the bodies of his brother, mother and six siblings. Six had been beaten and stabbed to death, and one was killed by shelling.
I was hiding in an olive grove, Hamawy said. I saw a tank outside my brothers house. We were talking on the phone and I told him to leave. Then the tank shelled the house.
Another man from Qubeir, who gave his name as Abu Khalid, said by phone on Thursday that he had been outside the village during the attack and had participated in the burial of nearly 50 bodies.
Other rebels said the militiamen responsible for the attack came from the nearby Alawite villages of Tuwaim and Tal Sakheen. Qubeirs residents were Sunni Muslims. In recent weeks, according to Sunni villagers in the area, Alawite militiamen, known as shabiha, have made threats against Sunni villages that have participated in demonstrations against Assad or have sheltered the armed rebels fighting the government.
Activists said that on Thursday, shabiha had also killed six people in nearby villages five in the village of Kharabeit and one in the village of Al Hurra, which was formerly home to both Alawites and Sunnis, though most Sunnis have fled in the past few months. Activists said the man killed on Thursday in Al Hurra was a member of one of the few Sunni families that had stayed.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been displaced inside and outside Syria by the violence, with more than 2,000 new refugees arriving in Turkey in the last week, according to the Turkish government. According to Syrian activists, more than 15,000 people have been killed, the majority of them civilians. The Syrian government has said that about 4,000 soldiers and security forces have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011.
McClatchy special correspondent Austin Tice contributed.