Syria denied its armed forces carried out a massacre in Treimsa, but said 37 gunmen and two civilians were killed in clashes with rebels, as a UN team entered the village yesterday to probe the assault.
Rights activists say more than 150 people were killed in Treimsa, which if confirmed would make it one of the bloodiest episodes of Syria’s 16-month uprising. Even so, it has already galvanized diplomatic efforts.
UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan is scheduled to travel to Damascus ally Moscow today for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, amid growing pressure on Russia to back the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Speaking at a news conference in Damascus, Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Jihad Makdissi said Syrian government forces did not use helicopters and tanks in Thursday’s assault on Treimsa.
“The aim of this news conference is to tell people that what happened was not a massacre ... It was a clash between regular forces and armed groups who do not believe in a peaceful solution. This is the reality, politically and militarily,” Makdissi said, adding that the army had not used aircraft in the assault.
“This is absolutely not true. Only troop carriers and lights weapons were used, the most powerful of weapons being RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades],” he said.
UN observers entered Treimsa to continue their investigations, after they saw blood and evidence of the use of heavy weapons as well as burned out homes during a trip to the village on Saturday. They did not give a casualty toll.
“On the basis of this preliminary mission, UNSMIS [UN -Supervision Mission in Syria] can confirm that an attack, using a variety of -weapons, took place in Treimsa on July 12,” UNSMIS spokeswoman Sausan Ghosheh said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 150 people were killed in the assault, which it alleged was a massacre carried out by the army backed by pro-regime shabiha militiamen.
However, Makdissi, citing an unidentified source who claimed to have buried them, said that “37 armed men were killed and two civilians only.”
If confirmed, the toll would exceed that of a massacre at Houla on May 25, when a pro-government militia and government forces were accused of killing at least 108 people.
The international community has reacted with outrage to the latest killings, with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealing for urgent action to stop the bloodshed and urging China — a key ally of Syria — to “influence” al-Assad in ending the conflict.
China is a key player in a Security Council dispute over sanctions against al-Assad. It has backed Russia in rejecting Western demands for international action to press al-Assad.
Ban, who is scheduled to visit China today, “called on China to use its influence to ensure the full and immediate implementation” of Annan’s peace plan and an international communique which Beijing agreed on June 30 calling for a political transition, a UN spokesman said.
Annan is scheduled to meet Putin tomorrow, the Kremlin said, to garner support for his peace initiative which has been violated daily since it came into effect on April 12.
The UN will today discuss aid needs for Syria at a donors meeting in Geneva, officials said, warning that so far only one-fifth of a US$189 million appeal had been received.