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United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan said he was “shocked and appalled” by the Syrian government’s use of heavy weapons in fighting around the town of Tremseh in what the opposition called a massacre of more than 300 people.
“I condemn these atrocities in the strongest possible terms,” Annan said in an e-mailed statement from Geneva today. The assault with tanks, artillery and helicopters violated a commitment by President Bashar al-Assad “to cease the use of heavy weapons in population centers.”
As many as 305 people were killed yesterday in Tremseh, in the central province of Hama, George Sabra, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council, told reporters today in Istanbul. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll in an e-mailed statement earlier at about 160 people, 30 of whom were burned to death.
Several demonstrations erupted today across Syria, including in the capital of Damascus and its suburbs, to protest the killings, the Local Coordination Committees in Syria, an opposition activist group, said in an e-mail.
“Whole families were wiped out,” the head of the SNC, Abdulbaset Sieda, said at a news conference in Istanbul that was televised by broadcasters including Al Arabiya.
He called for an urgent UN Security Council meeting on the killings and urged Syrians to step up anti-government protests.
“More than 200 men, women and children appear to have been killed in this latest atrocity,” U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said today in an e-mailed statement. “Everything we have seen of the Syrian regime’s behavior over the last 17 months suggests that these reports are credible.”
The U.S. will seek to “raise the stakes even further” for Syria at the UN, Josh Earnest, a spokesman for President Barack Obama said, without giving specifics.
“If there was any doubt before yesterday about the need for a coordinated international response at the United Nations, that doubt has been eliminated,” Earnest told reporters traveling with the president to a campaign event in Virginia.
UN observers are ready to go to Tremseh and “seek verification of the facts, if and when circumstances permit,” Annan said.
Major-General Robert Mood, commander of the UN observer mission in Syria, said his team verified fighting in Tremseh that involved mechanized units and helicopters, according to an e-mailed transcript of a news conference he gave in Damascus.
The reported killings came a week before the deadline for the Security Council to decide whether to extend an observer mission’s 90-day mandate in light of the continuing violence. The monitors’ operations have been largely suspended because of the danger posed to them.
“For the sake of the Syrian people we now need genuine and effective leadership from the Security Council,” Mood said. “Government and opposition must be willing to make concessions and sit down at the negotiating table.”
The assault on Tremseh began at dawn when Syrian troops surrounded the town of 10,000 mainly Sunni Muslim residents with 150 tanks and armored vehicles and started shelling, SNC member Abdulrahman Alhaj said today by phone from Istanbul. Then soldiers, backed by the pro-government Shabiha militia, stormed the town for five hours, he said.
“Some residents were chased and slaughtered with knives as they fled to the fields,” he said. “Others were burned in their homes, which the troops set on fire because they couldn’t break into them.”
The violence since the March 2011 start of the uprising against Assad has claimed more than 17,000 lives, according to Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group. He said the casualties include 4,348 members of the government’s security forces. At least 30 people were killed in Syria today, the Local Coordination Committees in Syria said in an e-mail.
The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said the deaths in Tremseh occurred when security forces clashed with “terrorist” groups after local residents called for help.
The clashes led to “severe losses” among the rebels and three government security personnel were killed, SANA said.
Colonel Riad al-Asaad, head of the opposition Free Syrian Army, called for a nationwide strike.
“I urge people to close down all roads and call upon all government employees to stay at their homes and not go to work in official directorates and to hold a general strike so we can paralyze the entire country, because this regime does not understand anything apart from the language of force,” he told Al Jazeera television.
The Syrian National Council reported on its Facebook page today that rebels fired 25 rocket-propelled grenades at the military airport in Mazzeh, blowing up three planes, a fuel depot and a storage area for ammunition in retaliation for the “massacre.”
A bomb planted in a car exploded on the crowded Mazzeh Street in the Syrian capital today, state-run Syrian TV said. It said there was material damage but no casualties.
Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a group of 57 states, condemned the “heinous massacre” in Tremseh in an e-mailed statement today and urged the UN Security Council to take action to stop the bloodshed.
Alhaj said the full scale of the “massacre” became apparent after residents returned to the town late yesterday.
“Activists and members of the Free Syrian Army are still looking for bodies,” he said.
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