BEIRUT -- Syria on Thursday denied as "absolutely baseless" claims by opposition groups about a new massacre in the central Hama province in which government forces allegedly killed dozens of people, including women and children.
The exact death toll and circumstances of the overnight killings in Mazraat al-Qubair on the outskirts of Hama were impossible to confirm but the violence is bound to reinforce the growing belief that a peace plan brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan is unraveling as the country spirals toward civil war.
The violence comes on the heels of a horrific massacre in late May in Houla, a cluster of villages in the central Homs province, which left over 100 dead including many children and women gunned down in their homes. U.N. investigators blamed pro-government gunmen for at least some of the killings but the Syrian regime denied responsibility and blamed rebels for the deaths. The Houla massacre triggered international outrage and a coordinated expulsion of Syrian diplomats from world capitals.
Syria on Thursday said "an armed terrorist group committed an appalling crime" in Mazraat al-Qubair, killing nine women and children. A government statement published on the state-run news agency SANA said that after the crime, residents there appealed on Syrian authorities in Hama to intervene to protect them, adding that competent authorities headed to the farm and stormed a hideout of the group and clashed with them.
Clashes resulted in the killing of all members of the group. Two security agents were killed and five others wounded, it said.
The statement said the killings were meant to put pressure on the Syrian regime ahead of the U.N. Security Council meeting.
British Prime Minister David Cameron urged concerted action from the international community against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime following the latest reports. He said Thursday that if the reports of the "brutal and sickening attack" are true, it adds further proof that the Assad regime is "completely illegitimate and cannot stand."
Speaking during a visit to Norway, Cameron insisted more must be done to isolate Assad's regime and show that "the whole world" wants to see political transition in Syria and condemns "absolutely" the Syrian regime.
The exact circumstances of the violence in Hama were impossible to independently confirm.
Al-Qubair is a small farm in the overwhelmingly Sunni village of Maarzaf around 20 kilometers (12 miles) west of the city of Hama with around 30 homes and around 160 inhabitants. Attempts to reach eyewitnesses and residents of the area were unsuccessful Thursday, making the verification of what went on extremely difficult. The Syrian government keeps tight restrictions on journalists.
Activists said the Sunni village is surrounded by a string of Alawite villages. Alawites are an offshoot of Shiite Islam and Assad is a member of the sect.
The Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights said Thursday that "dozens" of people were killed overnight in Mazraat al-Qubair but Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the group which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said he was still documenting names of the dead. He said the circumstances of the killings were still unclear and called on U.N. observers to visit the area immediately.
The Local Coordination Committees group gave a far higher death toll, saying more than 78 people were killed, including many women and children. It says pro-government militiamen known as shabiha first shelled the farming area and then went in and killed the residents there. It says some of the dead were stabbed to death while other bodies were burned.
Syria's main opposition group in exile, the Syrian National Council, also said 78 people were killed. It said 35 of them were from the same Al-Yatim family and more than half of them women and children. It said the militiamen converged on Qubair from neighboring pro-regime villages. It said some of the dead were killed execution-style, others were slain with knives.
"Women and children were burned inside their homes in al-Qubair," said Mousab Alhamadee, an activist based in the central province of Hama.
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|