Graphic scenes of grief and death in a Syrian village bore witness on Friday to a massacre President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents say was the work of his troops and militia allies, drawing words of outrage from the outside world.
There was “indisputable evidence that the regime deliberately murdered innocent civilians,” said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, demanding access for U.N. observers who on Thursday had been spectators to hours of bombing and gunfire, but were kept out of the village by Syrian troops.
Yet with much unclear about the precise events at Tremseh - where activists put the death toll anywhere between over 100 and more than twice that number - and with world powers as divided as ever, there was little response beyond the rhetorical.
“I condemn, in the strongest possible terms, the indiscriminate use of heavy artillery and shelling of populated areas, including by firing from helicopters,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, adding that it cast “serious doubt” on Assad’s recent commitment to Ban’s envoy’s peace plan.
The U.N. special envoy, Kofi Annan, condemned “atrocities”, as video evidence of casualties from Thursday’s attack on the village in rebellious Hama province emerged on the Web.
The White House said such violence cost Assad the legitimacy to remain as leader. Clinton said: “Those who committed these atrocities will be identified and held accountable.”
Annan was “shocked and appalled” at “intense fighting, significant casualties, and the confirmed use of heavy weaponry such as artillery, tanks and helicopters” in the village.
Calling it a “grim reminder” that U.N. resolutions calling for peace were being flouted, he wrote to the United Nations Security Council urging it to penalize Syria for failing to comply. But in the Council, Western powers still face objections from Russia and China to their efforts to push Assad from power.
Said Clinton: “History will judge this 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.”
A local 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.”
There was no independent account of the battle, which the government described as a massacre by “terrorist groups”.
Some opposition activists said over 220 people died when Tremseh was bombarded by helicopter gunships and tanks, then stormed by men from neighboring villages in what they portrayed as a sectarian attack on Sunnis by Assad’s fellow Alawites.
Others said the death toll in Thursday’s attack may have been less but was certainly over 100, which would make Tremseh one of the worst atrocities of the 17-month revolt against Assad and the 42-year-old family dynasty established by his father.
Syrian state television said there was fighting in Tremseh and accused “armed terrorist groups” of committing a massacre there, but gave no death toll. The rebel forces also said there was a battle and the U.N. military representative confirmed it.
U.N. monitors, who have been frustrated in overseeing a truce brokered by Annan in April but much abused since then, tried to reach the scene on Thursday. But they said in a report to their Geneva headquarters that they were stopped by Syrian officers who cited “military operations”.
From various points around Tremseh, over eight hours, they logged more than 100 explosions and rifle and heavy machinegun fire. They also saw a helicopter firing air-to-ground rockets.
Opposition video segments posted on YouTube provided evidence that dozens had met a violent death.
One piece of film to appear on the Internet showed the corpses of 15 young men with faces or shirts drenched in blood. Most wore T-shirts and jeans. There were no women or children.
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 carbonized corpse. Men placed wrapped bodies in a breeze-block trench for burial.
In a mosque packed with grieving women and distraught men, bodies were collected, identified and prepared. Children stepped gingerly among the corpses covering the floor.
“A regime has decided to use force to crush its own people,” said French President Francois Hollande. He said he was “telling the Russians and the Chinese” that by refusing tougher sanctions they would let “chaos and war take hold in Syria” in way that ran counter to the interests of Moscow and Beijing themselves.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said reports of the massacre were credible and required an international response.
UN monitors must get into Tremseh urgently to find out what happened, Hague said, and the United Nations Security Council must agree to a Chapter VII resolution with teeth that can impose sanctions if Assad fails to fulfill commitments made under Annan’s peace plan, to withdraw troops from residential areas.
Chapter VII allows the world body to take action ranging from sanctions to military intervention. But Russia and China have used veto powers so far to block such a resolution.
“Tragically, we now have another grim reminder that the Council’s resolutions continue to be flouted,” Annan wrote to the Council. Recalling his request for Syria to suffer consequences for non-compliance, he said: “This is imperative and could not be more urgent in light of unfolding events.”
Russia, which will host Annan for talks next week, called for an inquiry into events at Tremseh: “This wrongdoing serves the interests of those powers that are not seeking peace but persistently seek to sow the seeds of interconfessional and civilian conflict on Syrian soil,” the foreign ministry said.
Hama’s revolutionary movement said what happened to Tremseh was a case of ethnic cleansing.
The Sunni Muslim village lies in flat farmland. Access had been cut off for six months by army roadblocks. Tremseh is ringed by six hilltop villages of the Alawite minority which has dominated Syria for four decades under the Assads. They provided the militia who carried out the lethal purge, the movement said.
In a report, it said 200 buses, army trucks, tanks and other armored vehicles besieged the town in the morning and five helicopters were counted when the bombardment began.
Rebels from nearby rushed to defend the village and the ensuing battle went on for seven hours. After the dust settled, at least 150 bodies were collected from under the rubble and from surrounding farmland and from the Orontes river.
Forty were summarily executed, 30 burnt beyond recognition, it said. Three families were hacked to death.
“We can verify continuous fighting yesterday in the area of Tremseh,” said United Nations monitoring mission chief General Robert Mood. “This involved mechanized units, indirect fire, as well as helicopters.”
U.N. monitors were ready to “go in and seek verification of facts if and when there is a credible ceasefire”, he added.
The Tremseh battle took place as the U.N. Security Council began negotiating a potentially crucial new resolution on Syria. Washington wants tougher action, but Russia again ruled out such a step. Further meetings were held in New York on Friday.
The anti-Assad Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that over 150 people had been killed on Thursday in Tremseh and across Hama province, most of them in the village massacre.
The Observatory listed 100 victims by name, among them dozens of rebel fighters. Over 30 of the dead were completely burned, it said, and some were killed with clubs and knives.
On Friday, activists said at least two Palestinian men were killed on Friday when Syrian security forces opened fire on an anti-Assad protests in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus.
Additional by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Alastair Macdonald