ISTANBUL — U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan, the Obama administration 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 scores of civilians.
Russia, Syria’s principal international backer, also condemned the assault and called for an investigation, but it 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 (sectarian) strife and civil conflict in Syria,” Lukashevich said in Moscow, according to the Russian Itar-Tass news agency.
Outraged at the purported scope of the attack – possibly the single deadliest event yet in the 16-month-old revolt – Syrian revolutionaries took to Facebook and other social media to criticize Annan’s lackluster observer mission and demand his removal. Annan was called a “servant of Assad and Iran,” the regime’s close regional ally. Activists warned that Syria would be “Annan’s second Rwanda,” a reference to the African genocide that Annan publicly has said he could’ve done more to prevent during his tenure as head of U.N. peacekeeping forces during the mid-1990s.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a strongly worded condemnation of the killings in and around the village of Tremseh and said the violence should prompt the U.N. Security Council to “put its full weight behind the Annan plan for an immediate cease-fire and a political transition.”
“History will judge this council,” Clinton continued, in an implicit warning to Russia and China, which have blocked action against Assad at the Security Council. “Its members must ask themselves whether continuing to allow the Assad regime to commit unspeakable violence against its own people is the legacy they want to leave.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry said it was “anguished to learn about a new mass killing of peaceful Syrian citizens who were shot point-blank . . . by unidentified monsters.” It was Moscow’s strongest statements about the violence in Syria to date, but it remained far from clear whether the fresh reports would change Russia’s stance on Assad’s future.
People in Tremseh, a predominantly Sunni village near the city of Hama, initially reported that more than 200 people were killed, many of them while fleeing the assault by tanks, artillery, infantry and pro-Assad “shabiha” militia, the opposition Syrian National Council said. On Friday, locals reportedly had scaled back the estimate, with one witness confirming 74 dead to the Associated Press and another providing 103 names of alleged victims.
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 the number of victims in the Tremseh incident could not be verified. Anti-government activists’ videos, posted online, showed chilling scenes – more than 30 blanket-wrapped bodies laid out for burial, a young man sobbing over his father’s corpse – but so far no video has emerged to confirm the huge scale of killings described by the activists. Power was cut in the area, perhaps hampering the transmission of footage.
SANA, the Syrian state news service, offered a starkly different version of events, reporting that Tremseh was overrun by “terrorists” – the government’s catch-all term for participants in the uprising – and suffered heinous killings and attacks before the “competent security units” arrived at the request of the besieged villagers.
The Syrian forces, “clashed with the terrorists, inflicting huge losses upon them, capturing scores of them, confiscating their weapons,” according to the SANA report. At least three members of the security forces were killed in the operation, the state news agency added. The report went on to criticize the media frenzy over the purported killings and suggested that popular regional satellite channels – specifically, Qatar’s Al Jazeera and Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya – were complicit in the deaths.
The head of the U.N. military observer mission in Syria said his observers watched the Syrian military using mechanized units, shelling and helicopters in the assault against Tremseh. It came just three days after Assad sat down with peace envoy Annan and 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 Syrian National Council 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, the Syrian National Council’s president, told reporters in Istanbul.
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 choice for envoy in a surprise move on Monday. But Sieda told reporters in Istanbul that for the Syrian National Council, “there is no dialogue with killers, no compromise with killers.”
Gutman reported from Istanbul, Allam from Washington.
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