Details of a Battle Challenge Reports of a Syrian Massacre

by NEIL MacFARQUHAR
Tomas Munita for The New York Times

Adnan Hawash, a former Syrian Army officer staying in Antakya, Turkey, heard on Thursday that his son was killed in Tremseh.

Published: July 14, 2012

BEIRUT, Lebanon — New details emerging Saturday about what local Syrian activists called a massacre of civilians near the central city of Hama indicated that it was more likely an uneven clash between the heavily armed Syrian military and local fighters bearing light weapons.

The United Nations observers still on the ground in Syria sent a team in 11 vehicles to the village of Tremseh on Saturday to investigate what had happened, said Sausan Ghosheh, the spokeswoman for the monitors in Damascus, the capital.

Their initial report said the attack appeared to target “specific groups and houses, mainly of army defectors and activists,” Ms. Ghosheh said in a statement. It said a range of weapons had been used, including artillery, mortars and small arms.

The report seemed to indicate that some people had been killed at close range — it said there were pools of blood and blood spatters in several houses along with bullet cases. The team also found a burned school and damaged houses.

The number of casualties remains unclear, it said, but the United Nations team planned to return on Sunday to continue investigating.

Before the United Nations team entered the town, a combination of videos, televised confessions of numerous captured fighters and reports from activists outside the area all indicated that a battle on Thursday between the military and local fighters in Tremseh, a village of 11,000 people about 22 miles northwest of Hama, resulted in a slaughter of rebel forces.

The videos that have emerged so far online, the source of much of the information on any fighting that is available outside Syria, have shown the victims to be young men of fighting age. One showed 15 bodies. Another one, said to show a group of reinforcements being sent to Tremseh, also showed a group of young men in civilian clothes carrying their personal weapons.

There were also new questions about the death toll, with initial figures from activists of more than 160 and other reports putting the toll at more than 200. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group based in Britain that has a network of contacts in Syria, said that it had been able to confirm only 103 names, and 90 percent of them were young men. There were no women’s names on the list of 103 victims obtained from activists in Homs.

An initial roster of 20 names published by the Syrian National Council, the main umbrella opposition group in exile, was mostly a list of men between 19 and 36, although it included the name of a 6-year-old boy. Activists from the area contacted Saturday stuck to the narrative that there had been a massacre in Tremseh.

In previous massacres, however, like the one in Houla in late May, there was the immediate synchronization between the long lists of civilian names, the gruesome videos of dead women and children, and corroboration by United Nations observers who faulted the Syrian Army for using tank shells and other heavy weaponry against a civilian area. That is missing in the case of Tremseh.

After the high toll was announced from Tremseh, as was the case with Houla and other similar episodes, Western leaders lined up to condemn the mass killings of civilians. Col. Riad al-Assad, based in Turkey as the ostensible leader of the loose coalition of fighters called the Free Syrian Army, told the Arabic television network Al Jazeera on Thursday that there had been no opposition fighters in the town.

Although what actually happened in Tremseh remains murky, the evidence available suggested that events on Thursday more closely followed the Syrian government account. But Syrian officials colored that account with their usual terminology of blaming “foreign terrorist gangs” for all violence. The government said the Syrian Army had inflicted “heavy losses” on the “terrorists.”

The picture emerging is that there was a large group of fighters from the town and the local area bivouacked in Tremseh. The Syrian Army moved in early Thursday, blocking all exits and blasting away with machine guns, tank shells and rockets fired from helicopters, laying waste to the town.

“Whenever the Syrian Army knows there are fighters concentrated in an area, they attack,” said the leader of the Observatory, who goes by the pseudonym Rami Abdul-Rahman for safety reasons. “The majority of people killed in Tremseh were either rebel fighters from the village or from surrounding villages.”

Syrian state television paraded several captured fighters on air on Saturday who said Tremseh had been a regional center of operations for the past 20 days. The captives said that 200 to 300 fighters had gathered there to plot attacks on checkpoints and other military targets.

“We clashed for hours in Tremseh, and even the leader of the local division was killed,” said a man identified as Mohammed Satouf, who said his role had been to produce YouTube videos from the area. He said the rebel fighters used mostly small and light weapons.

State television also broadcast pictures of a roomful of weapons that it said had been captured from the town, the inventory mostly underscoring just what a crude and simple arsenal the opposition uses. It included 54 guns, 9 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, 5,000 cartridges, 25 satellite telephones and 24 mortars, the latter looking as if they had been welded by hand.

The broadcast also showed the identification card of what it said was a Turkish fighter in the group, and a captured man named Abdelsalem Darwish said there had been a Turkish fighter and some Libyans there, as well as money and arms from Turkey.

The official report also made the unlikely claim that government forces had killed no civilians, but that the dead civilians found in the town had been killed by the rebel fighters.

An initial report by United Nations observers who were unable to enter the town on Thursday said that they thought that the fighting there was a continuation of running battles in the area.

It said that Hama Province “continues to be highly volatile and unpredictable,” with the military targeting populated areas north of Hama on a large scale.

The internal report, titled “Restriction of Movement and Observed Cease-Fire Violation,” detailed the military activity the observers saw and the difficulty they had in trying to even talk to anyone from the Syrian military.

It said that during several hours watching the fighting from afar, the team had heard or seen 54 explosions; two flights of Mi-24 helicopters, including one firing air-to-ground rockets; sporadic heavy machine gun and small-arms fire; and plumes of black and white smoke. It also noted that various vehicles in the area were transporting armed men, including one ambulance with a wounded fighter inside.

Local contacts checking in by telephone reported that 50 people were killed and 150 wounded in Tremseh, the report said.

Dalal Mawad contributed reporting.