Middle East

Syria crisis: Conflicting reports of Tremseh killings

Screengrab of video purportedly showing wounded man in Tremseh (12 July 2012)
Image caption The UN confirmed there had been "continuous fighting" on Thursday in the area of Tremseh

There are conflicting reports from Syria about mass killings on 12 July in Tremseh, a village in Hama province.

UN observers have now reached the village but were able to say little other than heavy weapons had been used - a violation of Syria's commitment to a UN-backed peace plan.

The observers saw pools of blood and bullet cases but have not determined the number of dead, who they were, or exactly who carried out the attack.

They did say the attack appeared to target specific houses or buildings used by army defectors or opposition activists.

This runs counter to some of the villagers' accounts, which said that army tanks had randomly bombarded the village for several hours before pro-government militiamen swept in, shooting and stabbing victims, including civilians, at close range. Some reports say up to 200 people were killed.

But the government now says that only 37 people, including two civilians, died in the attack.

It also strongly rejected UN allegations that it used helicopters, aircraft or heavy weapons, saying only troops carriers and small arms, including rocket-propelled grenades, were deployed.

The government said five buildings housing what it termed "armed terrorists" had been targeted and that the area was too small to use tanks.

'Bodies burned'

Activist groups have been unable to determine a death toll.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights group said it had the names of 103 dead, including 50 rebel fighters.

Other activists say many more bodies are lying in fields that residents cannot reach because of army checkpoints.

The observers are continuing their investigation.

Correspondents say evidence has not yet been produced of any civilian massacre, although this remains one of the deadliest single incidents since the beginning of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011.

Tremseh is a predominantly Sunni Muslim farming village about 35km (20 miles) north-west of the city of Hama, surrounded by villages dominated by Alawites, the Shia heterodox sect to which President Assad belongs.

According to initial accounts from activists and witnesses, a convoy of more than a dozen vehicles, containing uniformed soldiers and members of a pro-government militia - known as "shabiha" - as well as tanks and artillery, surrounded Tremseh at about 06:00 (03:00 GMT) on Thursday, searching for members of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Image caption An image said to show relatives grieving for the dead in Tremseh

A resident of the nearby Kfar Hod, Abu Mohammed, told the New York Times that the soldiers and tanks were deployed to the east of the village, from where they opened fire with heavy weapons and machine-guns.

Shabiha were deployed along the western edge of Tremseh and "fired at anyone or any car that tried to leave the village", he added. The River Orontes provided a natural barrier to the south.

An account published on Thursday afternoon said the electricity and telephone lines were also cut, causing people to gather in the streets "in a state of fear and panic", "unable to flee because of the blockade".

It appears that there were members of the Free Syrian Army in the village, but it is not clear how many and to what extent they resisted.

Activists and witnesses said shabiha militiamen swept into the village after the bombardment. Many people were shot or stabbed, and dozens of bodies were burned or dumped in the streets, they added.

The UN Stabilisation Mission in Syria (Unsmis) confirmed there had been "continuous fighting" on Thursday in the Tremseh area, which had "involved mechanised units, indirect fire, as well as helicopters".

'Ethnic cleansing'

Activists later published a video online purportedly showing the blood-stained bodies of at least 15 young men laid out on blankets on a concrete floor, their faces or shirts drenched in blood. Some had wounds in their heads and chests. Most of the men were wearing jeans and t-shirts, though one had a camouflage jacket.

Another video showed an alleged survivor of the killings. The narrator accused the government of "ethnic cleansing".

Abu Mohammed said he had visited Tremseh after the killings and seen bodies in fields, on streets and in homes. He said about 50 bodies had been pulled out of the River Orontes, and that most of the victims were farmers.

The Local Co-ordination Committees, an opposition activist network, reported that more than 220 people had been killed in Tremseh.

It said: "The same methodology, tools and means as previous massacres was used: forces of the regime's army shelled the town, shabiha then stormed the town and killed and slaughtered individuals and then burned the wounded and the bodies of the martyrs."

Jaafar, an activist with the opposition Sham News Network (SNN), told the AFP news agency most of those killed had been FSA fighters.

"At this stage, though we do not yet have the final count, the number of civilians killed by shelling is not more than seven," he said.

'Terrorists captured'

The state news agency, Sana, said "tens of terrorists" had overrun Tremseh, killing or wounding dozens of civilians and ransacking or destroying scores of houses.

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Media captionHama resident Mos'ab al Hamadi: "This small village was visited by armoured vehicles and tanks"

It cited a witness, Abu Arif al-Khalid, who said the assailants had "opened fire on [Tremseh's] inhabitants and houses at random, killing more than 50 people, and blowing up houses".

"A woman and her child were killed by the terrorists before the eyes of all the people there, added Abu Arif al-Khalid," Sana reported.

Security forces only arrived at the village after receiving calls from residents, officials said.

Once there, the troops clashed with the attackers, "inflicting huge losses upon them, capturing scores of them, confiscating their weapons, among which were Israeli-made machine-guns", the Sana report added.

Some of those captured were paraded on state TV, which also showed large quantities of arms and ammunition it said were seized.