'Syria killings targeted opposition'

UN observers were unable to confirm reports that 220 people were massacred in an attack.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Picture: AFP

BEIRUT - United Nations observers found blood, burned homes and signs of artillery fire in the Syrian village of Tremseh on Saturday but were unable to confirm activists' reports that about 220 people were massacred in an attack that prompted international outrage.

The United States has branded Syria's leaders murderers after the assault by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's troops, but there was no break in the deadlock among world powers over how to bring about an end to the bloodshed.

Syria earlier 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.

A statement by the U.N. mission in Damascus said observers were unable to confirm the death toll or number of casualties but would return on Sunday to investigate further.

"The attack on Tremseh appeared targeted at specific groups and houses, mainly of army defectors and activists," the spokesman for the U.N. observer mission to Syria said in an emailed statement.

"A wide range of weapons were used, including artillery, mortars and small arms."

Opposition activists say government forces killed about 220 people in the village. U.N. observers said they had found a burned school and fire-damaged houses.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had already condemned what a U.N. 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 U.N.-sponsored peace plan for Syria.

The bloodshed continued on Saturday, when 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 against Assad that Western powers say has left 17,000 dead.

"We were surrounded from four sides ... with tanks and armoured vehicles, and the helicopters were hovering above," said an unidentified man 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."

BODIES

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 Assad's Alawite minority, of swooping on the battered village, home mostly to Sunni Muslims, and of killing their neighbours 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 burnt 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.

Quoting an unnamed military source, Syrian state news agency SANA said the Tremseh operation came in response to the "pleas of the inhabitants of Tremseh who had been exposed to various forms of criminal acts at the hands of armed terrorist groups".

It said the residents of Tremseh thanked the authorities for "restoring security and safety to the area".

While Washington laid the blame for the killings at Assad's door, China strongly condemned "behaviour 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.