Reports of a massacre in a Syrian village prompted sharp condemnation from the diplomat trying to forge a cease-fire, as well as calls from protesters for that diplomat’s removal.
More than 200 Syrians, mostly civilians, were massacred in a village in the rebellious Hama region when it was bombarded by helicopter gunships and tanks and then stormed by militiamen, opposition activists said.
It would be the worst single incident of violence in 16 months of conflict in which rebels are fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad and diplomacy to halt the bloodshed has been stymied by jostling between world powers.
Syrian protesters say international envoy Kofi Annan, the special envoy to Syria for the United Nations and the Arab League, has been ineffectual. They want him removed from his special envoy role and are demanding tougher world action against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The latest massacre “certainly does build strong international support” to ramp up pressure on Assad,” the White House’s principal deputy spokesman, Josh Earnest, told reporters Friday.
Annan brokered a six-point peace plan in Syria in April, but opposition fighters and regime forces have largely shunned its mandates, including a call to lay down their weapons.
On Friday, meanwhile, a large explosion shook parts of central Damascus, the government and its opponents said. Opposition activists said it happened in the city’s Mezze neighborhood. The state-run news agency reported that a car bomb detonated on a highway there. There were conflicting accounts of whether the bombing caused casualties.
Word of the bombing came amid widening concern about the reported massacre a day earlier — and as the head of the U.N. Supervising Mission in Syria confirmed that “continuous fighting” occurred in the village where the massacre is said to have occurred.
Maj. Gen. Robert Mood said his team of U.N. observers is “ready to go in and seek verification of the facts if and when there is a credible cease-fire.” He said the fighting in Tremseh involved mechanized units and helicopters.
Mood’s group is tasked with monitoring Annan’s plan, but its operations have been suspended because of the violence.
On the main Facebook page for the uprising, opposition leaders accused Annan of failing to stop the killing of civilians. And protesters took to the streets, demanding his removal and marching in solidarity with the victims of Tremseh, a village more than 21 miles (34 kilometers) northwest of the city of Hama.
“We had some hope about the Annan mission, and that hope died with the new massacre in Tremseh,” said Ahmed, an activist from Homs who did not want all names used for safety reasons. “And what is Annan going to do?”
Annan deplored the reports of violence in Tremseh, calling it a “violation of the government’s undertaking to cease the use of heavy weapons in population centers and its commitment to the six-point plan.”
Details of another massacre in a Syrian village prompted his outrage. “I am shocked and appalled by news coming out of the village of Tremseh, near Hama, of intense fighting, significant casualties, and the confirmed use of heavy weaponry such as artillery, tanks and helicopters,” he said in a statement Friday.
“It is yet another reminder of the nightmare and the horrors Syrian civilians are being subjected to.”
Annan reiterated the need for a cease-fire.
“It is desperately urgent that this violence and brutality stops and more important than ever that governments with influence exert it more effectively to ensure that the violence ends — immediately,” he said.
CNN cannot independently verify reports from Syria because the nation has restricted access by international journalists.
Other opposition groups are still counting the deaths.
The opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria reported more than 220 deaths.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, another opposition group, said it received reports of 160 deaths in the village, but has documented only 40. The Syrian Human Rights League, an opposition group based in Cairo, said at least 260 people have died and the toll might rise.
The LCC death toll for Syria on Thursday — at present 287 — could make it the bloodiest day in Syria since the uprising against the government started 16 months ago.
There have been other reports of mass killings in Syria, such as the killings of dozens in the city of Houla in May.
The league said electric power and communications were cut in Tremseh during what it calls a “siege” that started with shelling and artillery fire and was followed by bloody raids, arrests, and house burnings. It said many of the victims were civilians, including women and children knifed, torched and drowned.
The group urged the international community “to urgently intervene using all possible means to stop the massacres committed by the government forces and supportive armed militias against innocent civilians.”
The LCC called the Tremseh incident a “massacre” and said “a heinous criminal act was added to the regime’s track record of horrors.”
“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,” the group said. The Shabiha are pro-government militia members.
The group said the “regime has also drawn a line of sectarian demarcation to leave Syrians terrorized from one another.” That’s a reference to sectarian strife between, for example, Sunnis, the predominant religious group in Syria, and Alawites, the offshoot of Shiite Islam that dominates the government.
Rafif Jouejati, an LCC spokeswoman, said she considers the recent high-profile sectarian-related incidents “isolated” and not reflective of most Syrian attitudes. She and other opposition figures blame the regime for attempting to sow ethnic and religious divisions.
“The reality is the peaceful movement continues to thrive despite the regime’s best attempts,” she said.
The government painted a different picture.
In a report in state media, Syria said more than 50 people were killed in Tremseh, maintaining its stance that “armed terrorist groups” are to blame. The government said residents called security forces for help after the terrorist groups raided the neighborhood.
Regime forces arrested some of the members of the terror groups and confiscated their weapons, the government said.
A military source quoted by the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said an operation by armed forces destroyed “terrorists’ dens,” killed many of the people they found there, and led to the arrests of scores more.
“Large amounts of weapons and documents, including IDs for non-Syrian persons, one of them Turkish, were seized,” the report said.
“Armed forces successfully dealt with the terrorists without casualties taking place among the citizens. They searched into the terrorists’ dens where they found the dead bodies of a number of citizens who had been abducted and killed by the terrorist groups.”
The unrest in Syria continued Friday. At least 66 people have been killed, the LCC said. The conflict has left world leaders scrambling to find a solution in a series of talks that have included Annan.
Al-Assad’s bloody crackdown on civilians has sparked international condemnation, but the support of allies such as Russia and China has protected the Syrian regime and hindered a resolution by the United Nations.
Annan brokered the six-point peace plan in April, and Syria accepted the plan, which proposed an end to the violence, access to humanitarian groups and an inclusive political dialogue.
“Kofi Annan is doing, so far, difficult but good work,” al-Assad said Sunday. “There are many obstacles, but it shouldn’t be a failed plan.”
Russia and China, which are permanent U.N. Security Council members, have vetoed draft resolutions that would have condemned the Syrian regime.
The council on Thursday discussed dueling draft resolutions on Syria. Ambassadors remain at odds over whether a Western-backed resolution should invoke a U.N. charter mandating sanctions and ultimately leading to an authorization to use force.
The Tremseh incident underscored talk of such a resolution. British Foreign Secretary William Hague called for an independent probe into what happened and who is responsible. He said the U.N. mission in Syria must have swift and unhindered access to the village.
“We will redouble our efforts to agree a Chapter VII Resolution of the United Nations Security Council,” he said Friday, referring to the kind of measure that could lead to use of force.
“This would compel the Syrian regime to fulfill the commitments it has made under the Annan Plan, to withdraw its military from residential areas, and establish a transitional government as called for by Kofi Annan and endorsed by the P5 (the five permanent member of the Security Council) and Arab League,” he said.
“It should be a legally binding Security Council Resolution with teeth, that creates a trigger for sanctions if the Assad regime does not comply. British diplomats in New York will continue negotiations on a resolution at the Security Council today.”
The U.N. Security Council discussions at the ambassador level are scheduled to resume Friday. Annan plans to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday in Moscow.
Meanwhile, the regime has suffered a series of setbacks. Syria’s ambassador to Iraq defected Wednesday and joined the opposition, days after Manaf Tlas, a high-ranking military officer who was a longtime friend of the Assad family, cut ties with the government.
Meanwhile,Iran has demonstrated readiness to play a role alongside other regional countries to try to establish a dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition, an official was quoted as saying on Saturday.
“Iran is ready to play an appropriate role in bringing stability and security in Syria” to prevent the crisis “quickly spreading to the whole region,” foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told the Iran newspaper.
Tehran has repeatedly offered to help resolve the crisis, but this has been rejected by Syria’s opposition and Western and Arab states which accuse it of militarily aiding President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to suppress a rebellion.
In return, Iran has accused some Western and Arab countries of arming Syrian rebel fighters with the aim of toppling the Assad regime.
More than 17,000 people have reportedly been killed in Syria since an uprising erupted since March 2011.
In his remarks published on Saturday, Mehmanparast again criticised “certain regional countries (who) believe that by arming the rebels, they can solve the Syrian crisis.”
“Instead of fuelling conflicts and pushing Syria towards a civil war, these countries should use their influence to create a climate of dialogue between the government and the opposition,” he added.
He also reaffirmed Tehran’s backing of UN-Arab league envoy Kofi Annan’s plan aimed at resolving the crisis. Although it has so far failed, the plan remains “the best solution to the Syrian crisis,” he said.