UN: Syria massacre part of air force operation

At least 220 killed by fire from helicopter gunships. Security Council to vote on Syria resolution this week.

Syria protests Homs 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Syria protests Homs 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
UN observers in Syria described an attack on a village in the Hama region in which about 220 people were reported killed as part of a continuing Syrian air force operation.
Reuters obtained the UN mission assessment on Friday.
Opposition sources said about 220 people, mostly civilians, were killed in Tremseh when helicopter gunships and tanks attacked on Thursday, after which militiamen stormed the village and slaughtered families.
“The operation in Tremseh is assessed as an extension of the SAAF [Syrian Arab Air Force]... operation in Khan Sheikhoun to Souran over the recent number of days,” said the two-page report by the UN mission in Syria, known as UNSMIS.
UN observers entered the central Syrian village of Tremseh on Saturday, two days after the operation, prompting international outrage.
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Syria rejected allegations of a massacre and said the attack on Thursday was a successful military operation that killed a large number of “terrorists” but no civilians.
The bloodshed in the country continued on Saturday, when the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 33 people were killed, several by an army bombardment in Homs province.
Accounts from opposition activists cited a death toll in Tremseh ranging from over 100 to more than twice that – one of the bloodiest incidents in the 17-month uprising that Western powers say has left 17,000 dead.
“We were surrounded from four sides... with tanks and armored vehicles, and the helicopters were hovering above,” an unidentified man said on video footage purportedly filmed in Tremseh and posted on the Internet on Saturday.
“They burned people in front of our eyes, they held the men like this and stabbed them,” he said, pointing to his chest and then to an artery in his throat. He said his cousin’s throat was slit. “They took out people’s eyes.”
One group said rebel fighters rushed to reinforce the village after it came under attack by infantry, artillery and aircraft, leading to a battle that lasted seven hours.
In a pattern seen elsewhere in recent months, rebels accused local irregular militiamen known as shabbiha, from President Bashar Assad’s Alawite minority, of swooping on the battered village, home mostly to Sunnis, and of killing their neighbors in a sectarian attack some called ethnic cleansing.
A Tremseh 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.”
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 burned 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.
Via its Twitter account on Saturday, the Syrian state news agency SANA cited an unnamed military source as saying that “armed forces” had carried out a “qualitative operation” in Tremseh, after “tens of terrorists” had overrun the village, “killing or wounding tens of Syrian citizens.”
SANA’s news website appeared to be down, however, and state news agency tweeted that the site had been “attacked by foreign sides which try to prevent the Syrian national media from conveying the truth of events.”
There were no independent accounts of the number of dead or how they were killed.
According to the UNSMIS report, a patrol of unarmed UN military observers could get within only about 6 km. of Tremseh on Thursday before being stopped by SAAF commanders because of “military operations.” The patrol observed the situation from a few locations around Tremseh for about eight hours, during which time it heard more than 100 explosions, sporadic small arms and heavy machine gun fire and saw white and black smoke plumes.
The UN observers saw one Mi-8 and two Mi-24 helicopters and witnessed one of the Mi-24 helicopters firing air-to-ground rockets.
“The patrol received several calls from local contacts claiming 50 people had been killed and 150 wounded within Tremseh,” the report said.
“Attempts to contact the local military commander during this period were unsuccessful,” it said.
“Patrols attempted to access Tremseh via alternate routes without success.”
The report said the UN mission made further attempts to put in place a local cease-fire to allow the evacuation of civilians from Tremseh, by contacting the Hama Governorate chief of police and the SAAF senior national liaison officer, but did not succeed.
The UN observers said they also saw several civilian trucks and cars moving through the area carrying armed men wearing a mix of military and civilian clothing and 10 ambulances, one of which was transporting an armed person.
UNSMIS was deployed in April to monitor a failed truce as part of international envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan. The UN Security Council must decide the future of the mission before July 20, when its initial 90- day mandate expires. It is expected to vote this week on extending the mandate of UN observers in Syria, whose original mission was to monitor a cease-fire that never took hold.
The attacks in Tremseh have drawn international condemnation.
While Washington laid the blame for the killings at Assad’s door, China said it strongly condemned “behavior which harms innocent civilians” but did not say who it believed carried out the attack.
“We again urge all relevant sides in Syria to take practical steps to immediately stop all violence,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said in a short statement.
Secretary-General Ban Kimoon condemned what a UN reconnaissance mission on Friday said was “indiscriminate” bombardment of the central Hama province village, including rocket-firing helicopters. He questioned Assad’s commitment to a UN-sponsored peace plan for Syria.
“I condemn, in the strongest possible terms, the indiscriminate use of heavy artillery and shelling of populated areas, including by firing from helicopters,” Ban said.
On Friday, Ban said reports of the massacre by Syrian government forces cast “serious doubts” on Assad’s commitment to a UNbacked peace plan.
In a letter to the Security Council on Friday, Annan said the massacre in Tremseh showed that UN resolutions on Syria were being ignored, making it imperative to signal that there would be consequences.
Russia has proposed extending the UN mission for 90 days, but Britain, the US, France and Germany have countered with a draft resolution that threatens Syria with sanctions.
The Western-backed resolution would extend the force for 45 days and place Annan’s peace plan under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter.
Chapter 7 allows the council to authorize actions ranging from diplomatic and economic sanctions to military intervention. US officials have said they are talking about sanctions on Syria, not military intervention.
According to the draft resolution, Syria would face sanctions if it does not stop using heavy weapons and withdraw its troops from towns and cities within 10 days of the adoption of the resolution.
Russian Deputy UN Ambassador Alexander Pankin said on Thursday that Moscow was “definitely against” Chapter 7.
Ban has recommended shifting the emphasis of the work of UNSMIS from military observers to civilian staff focusing on a political solution and issues like human rights.
While the mandate for 300 unarmed military observers is likely to be unchanged, diplomats said they have been told that only half the number would be required for the suggested shift in focus of the mission.
The others would return to their home countries, but be ready to redeploy again at short notice.