BEIRUT — As government troops advanced on a village in northwestern Syria, activists say the terrified residents fled into a valley for fear of being arrested or worse. What happened next, one of the activists said, was "an organized massacre."
The troops surrounded the valley and unleashed a barrage of rockets, tank shells, bombs and gunfire in an hours-long assault, according to two human rights groups and a witness, killing more than 100 people and leaving no survivors in one of the bloodiest days of a crackdown by President Bashar Assad against a nine-month popular uprising.
The White House said it was "deeply disturbed" by Tuesday's attack, France called it a "murderous spiral," and the Arab League reminded the Assad regime of its responsibilities to protect its civilians.
The United Nations says more than 5,000 people have died since March as Syria has sought to put down the uprising – part of the Arab Spring of protests that has toppled long-serving unpopular leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
Members of Syria's opposition said the bloodshed outside the village of Kfar Owaid, about 30 miles from the northern border with Turkey in Idlib province, was evidence of the authoritarian leader's intent to intensify its crackdown on the uprising before Arab League observers arrive in the country Thursday. The death toll from two days of violence this week topped 200, including up to 70 army defectors killed near the city of Idlib, the activists said.
"It was an organized massacre," said Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based activist group. "The troops surrounded people, then killed them."
Kfar Owaid is part of the rugged mountainous region of Jabal al-Zawiyah, the scene of clashes between troops and army defectors, as well as weeks of intense anti-government protests.
One Kfar Owaid villager who is an anti-government activist told The Associated Press by telephone that scores of residents and activists had fled to the nearby Budnaya Valley ahead of the advancing troops. He said the security forces had lists of names of those who organized massive anti-regime protests recently in the village.
Those who fled to the valley were completely surrounded by troops, said the activist, who identified himself only as Abu Rabih for fear of government reprisal. The troops then opened fire with tanks, rockets and heavy machine guns, he said, adding that they also used bombs filled with nails to increase the number of casualties.
He said 110 people were killed in the attack, with 56 of them buried in Kfar Owaid on Wednesday. Others were buried in nearby villages.
Abdul-Rahman corroborated the Kfar Owaid witness account. The group, which uses a network of local activists to collect information on the crackdown, said 111 people from the village were killed Tuesday.
All of those in the valley were unarmed civilians and activists, with no armed military defectors among them, the rights groups said.
The Jabal al-Zawiyah region has been under intense attack by government forces since Saturday, Abu Rabih said.
Syrian officials have not commented on the allegations.
Assad agreed Monday to allow foreign monitors into Syria under an Arab League plan aimed at stopping the bloodshed. The huge toll Monday and Tuesday from the crackdown has reinforced opposition suspicions that Assad is trying to stall before a new round of international condemnation and sanctions. His regime already has been left isolated and under pressure from the Arab world as well as the West.
The Obama administration reacted to the latest reports by renewing its call for Assad to step down, saying he "does not deserve to rule Syria."
"The United States is deeply disturbed by credible reports that the Assad regime continues to indiscriminately kill scores of civilians and army defectors, while destroying homes and shops and arresting protesters without due process," the White House said in a statement read by spokesman Jay Carney, warning that the international community could take more steps against Syria.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland added that the stepped-up violence signaled that Syria's acceptance of the Arab League plan is merely a "stalling tactic."
"This is not the behavior of a government that is getting ready to implement the Arab League proposals," she told reporters, adding later that: "We've got lots of promises as the government continues to mow down its own people."
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said "everything must be done to stop this murderous spiral into which Bashar Assad is leading his people more every day." He added that the U.N. Security Council must "pass a firm resolution demanding the end to this repression."
The German government's human rights commissioner, Markus Loening, called for an immediate end to violence against deserters and demonstrators.
Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said "it is unacceptable" that so many people were killed after Syria agreed to an Arab League plan to halt the bloodshed.
In Cairo, Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby expressed deep concern about reports of an escalation in violence and appealed to Damascus to shoulder its responsibilities to protect civilians in compliance with its pledges to abide by the league's plan.
The Arab League plan calls for Syria to halt its crackdown, open talks with the opposition, withdraw military forces from city streets and allow in human rights workers and journalists. The 22-member Arab League has also suspended Syria's membership and leveled economic and diplomatic sanctions.
Despite the new violence, the Arab League appeared to be going ahead with its plans to send in its first delegation of monitors on Thursday. An Arab League official said the second team of observers – 30 experts in military affairs and human rights – will head for Syria on Sunday, led by Lt. Gen. Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa of Sudan.
Another team of 100 observers will leave for Syria within two weeks, he said.
Syria's main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, described this weeks killings as "brutal massacres and genocide," saying it has urged the U.N. Security Council to hold an emergency meeting on Syria. The SNC also asked the international community to help protect Syrian citizens.
The conflict, which began with peaceful protests in March, has become increasingly militarized in recent weeks, with clashes nearly every day between troops and army defectors who have joined the movement against Assad. Idlib province has witnessed some of the most intense clashes.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces shot and killed three people in the Damascus suburb of Zabadani and one in the northern town of Saraqeb. It added that a large force stormed the town of Dael in the southern province of Daraa, wounding dozens of people. Another group, the Local Coordination Committees, said 15 people were killed Wednesday – part of a death toll of more than 100 people this week.
On Monday, security forces killed up to 70 army defectors as they were deserting their military posts in Idlib, activists said.
The accounts could not be independently confirmed because Syria has banned most foreign journalists and places heavy restrictions on the work of local reporters.
In Damascus, meanwhile, the Iranian Embassy said five Iranian engineers who work at an electricity station in the restive Syrian city of Homs were kidnapped Tuesday – a possible attempt by Assad's staunchest ally to corroborate his regime's claim that armed gangs are to blame for the anti-government uprising.
Associated Press writer Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.
Bassem Mroue can be reached on http://twitter.com/bmroue