BEIRUT — Syrian government forces clashed with army defectors in the country's north on Wednesday, causing casualties and further enflaming an area near the Turkish border where rebel fighters have tried to seize territory, activists said.
Syria's persistent bloodshed has tarnished efforts by a U.N. team of observers to salvage a truce that started to unravel almost as soon as it was supposed to begin on April 12.
Human Rights Watch accused President Bashar Assad's regime of war crimes during an offensive ahead of the truce, further throwing into doubt his commitment to a peaceful solution to the conflict.
Despite the violence, the international community still sees the peace plan as the last chance to prevent Syria from falling into civil war – in part because no country wants to intervene militarily.
Mission spokesman Neeraj Singh said 31 U.N. military observers are now in Syria. Observers have been posted in the cities of Idlib, Hama, Homs and Dara, he said.
Amateur videos posted online showed them in parts of Homs and the town of Binnish in the north. In a video from Homs, two white U.N. Land Cruisers are stopped near a decomposing body near piles of trash. Gunshots are heard nearby. The veracity of the videos could not be independently confirmed.
Syria's state news agency said the observers visited parts of Hama in central Syria.
The two sides have blamed each other for thwarting the truce, with Assad's forces trying to repress demonstrators calling for him to step down and an armed rebellion that has sprung up as peaceful protests have proved ineffective against his forces. The U.N. says 9,000 people have died since the uprising began in March 2011.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 15 members of the Syrian security forces, including two officers, were killed in an ambush by rebels in al-Raai. It said two army defectors also died in the clashes. The figures could not be independently confirmed.
Syria's official news agency said a member of the country's security forces was killed and three others wounded in a roadside bomb explosion in the central province of Hama. SANA said the bombing on a road between the towns of Tibet al-Imam and al-Latamneh was carried out by a "terrorist" group – a phrase authorities use for rebels fighting the regime.
In its report, Human Rights Watch detailed violence committed by government forces in northern Syria in a two-week period leading up to the cease-fire, bringing into question whether Assad simply used the time ahead of the truce to tighten his grip on power.
The New York-based international rights group said troops killed at least 95 civilians and burned or destroyed hundreds of houses as U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan was negotiating with the Syrian government to end the fighting. In a 38-page report, the group documented summary executions, killing of civilians and arbitrary detentions and torture that it says qualify as war crimes.
"While diplomats argued over details of Annan's peace plan, Syrian tanks and helicopters attacked one town in Idlib after another," said Anna Neistat, associate director for programs and emergencies at Human Rights Watch.
"Everywhere we went, we saw burned and destroyed houses, shops and cars, and heard from people whose relatives were killed. It was as if the Syrian government forces used every minute before the cease-fire to cause harm," she said.
The report was based on a field investigation conducted in Idlib province. Some of the incidents cited appear to confirm widespread reports at the time of an offensive in Idlib in early April that triggered a wave of refugees who crossed the border to Turkey with horrific accounts of mass graves, massacres and burned out homes. Activists at one point reported about 100 dead in the villages of Taftanaz and Killi.
HRW said the majority of execution-style killings took place during the attack on Taftanaz. It cited nine separate incidents in which government forces executed 35 civilians in their custody. In other cases, government forces opened fire and killed or wounded civilians trying to flee the attacks.
Other groups, including the U.N.'s top human rights body, have condemned Syria for widespread and systematic rights violations against civilians.
The U.N.-appointed Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria has published two reports during the conflict. Last month, it handed U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay a secret, sealed list of top Syrian officials who could face investigation for crimes against humanity.
Associated Press writer Albert Aji contributed reporting from Damascus, Syria.
U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice tweets:
|@ AmbassadorRice : #Syria regime turned artillery, tanks and helicopters on its own men & women. It unleashed knife-wielding shabiha gangs on its own children.|
Russia says international envoy Kofi Annan will visit Moscow on Monday to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria. Russia also called for an inquiry into an alleged massacre that took place in the village of Tramseh on Thursday. "We have no doubt that this wrongdoing serves the interests of those powers that are not seeking peace but persistently seek to sow the seeds of interconfessional and civilian conflict on Syrian soil," Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement, according to Reuters. Moscow did not apportion blame for the killings.
Read more on Reuters.com.
The Associated Press obtained a video that purports to show the aftermath of an alleged massacre in the village of Tramseh, near Hama.
How do Syria's fighters get their arms? An overview put together by Reuters explains that there are three gateways to the country -- Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.
Syrian rebels are smuggling small arms into Syria through a network of land and sea routes involving cargo ships and trucks moving through Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, maritime intelligence and Free Syrian Army (FSA) officers say. Western and regional powers deny any suggestion they are involved in gun running. Their interest in the sensitive border region lies rather in screening to ensure powerful weapons such as surface to air missiles do not find their way to Islamist or other militants.
Read the full report here.
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a man mourning a victim killed by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
According to the Hama Revolutionary Council, a Syrian opposition group, more than 220 people have been killed in a new alleged massacre in Taramseh. Earlier reports said more than 100 people were killed. "More than 220 people fell today in Taramseh," the Council said in a statement. "They died from bombardment by tanks and helicopters, artillery shelling and summary executions."
Fadi Sameh, an opposition activist from Taramseh, told Reuters he had left the town before the reported massacre but was in touch with residents. "It appears that Alawite militiamen from surrounding villages descended on Taramseh after its rebel defenders pulled out, and started killing the people. Whole houses have been destroyed and burned from the shelling," Sameh claimed.
Read more on Reuters.com.
Syrian activist Rami Jarrah tweets that Syrian State TV has confirmed deaths in Tremseh. "Terrorists" is often the term used by the Syrian regime for opposition forces.
|@ AlexanderPageSY : Syrian State TV: clashes between security apparatus & terrorists in #Tremseh of #Hama leaves large numbers of terrorists killed #Syria|
|@ Reuters : UPDATE: DEATH TOLL IN SYRIAN FORCES' ATTACK ON VILLAGE IN SYRIA'S HAMA REGION IS MORE THAN 200, MOSTLY CIVILIANS - OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS|