/ 15 July 2012

Syria massacre: Assad’s forces ‘shot anything moving’

This image made from amateur video purports to show families gathered around bodies of victims in Tremseh.
This image made from amateur video purports to show families gathered around bodies of victims in Tremseh.

Residents of the battered Syrian town of Tremseh have described being chased from their homes and hunted down by regime forces after seven hours of shelling during a major assault that left more than 150 people dead last Thursday.

The first observers to reach the devastated town described widespread scenes of destruction, and many residents appeared too traumatised to talk about their ordeal. The massacre in the small farming community of 6 000 to the north-west of Hama is being described as the worst single atrocity of the Syrian uprising.

Two eyewitnesses from Tremseh who spoke to the Observer on Saturday blamed regime forces and the pro-regime militia, the Shabiha, for the attack, which has seen many of its residents flee and left more than 100 people missing. "We don't understand why they attacked us," said a local woman, Umm Khaled. "We haven't brought harm to the region. All we've done here is hold demonstrations."

Umm Khaled, who had lived in Tremseh — a Sunni Muslim enclave — all her life, said people trying to flee through nearby fields were shot dead as they ran. She claims some of the bodies were taken away by regime forces and that others were handcuffed, then summarily executed.

Syria's state news agency on Saturday released a detailed account of what it says took place in Tremseh, blaming the massacre on a "terrorist gang" of 200 to 300 men, which it claimed included foreign Arab fighters. It released names and photographs of four men it said had been ringleaders.

The two Tremseh residents strongly denied the regime's claims that their town either supported, or had been subverted by, a terrorist group. Both insisted that the anti-regime guerrilla force, the Free Syria Army, did not have a strong presence in town.

'All of this because we support the revolution?'

"I swear that we don't have any terrorists, Salafists, or anyone from the outside here," said Umm Khaled. "People have been terrified ever since [regime forces] came to the village in January and killed 40 of us. This time they stole from our homes, they robbed jewellery from women. All of this because we support the revolution?"

A second Tremseh resident, who wanted to be known only as Mohammed, said: "The bombardment started at 5.30am and ended at 2pm. The incursion started at midday from the north of the village. Shabiha and regime military men entered the village and occupied the roofs of high buildings and shot at anything moving.

"They shot many civilians in the head and then burnt the bodies. They handcuffed civilians and then shot them in the head. They burnt shops and houses with families inside. After what happened, the FSA members tried to get inside the village to help out with burying the martyrs and tending to the wounded but they couldn't.

"The criminals took many martyrs' bodies and wounded civilians with them and there are many missing people and burnt dead bodies with no way to identify them."

The UN has said that its monitors in Syria witnessed helicopters and tanks shelling Tremseh on Thursday and said the Syrian Air Force took a lead role in the assault. The killings appear at face value to have similarities to the massacre that took place in Houla in late May. Tremseh, like Houla, is located near a series of Alawite villages, which have largely remained loyal to the Assad regime.

In a recent report on Houla, the UN said it could not say who was responsible for the massacre, which killed 108 people, but implied that regime forces and their backers had played a role. The two Tremseh witnesses who spoke with the Observer claimed that some of their attackers came from the direction of Alawite villages, which they named as Safsafeyeh, Tal Sikeen and Falha. "Relations between us and the Alawite villages were always peaceful but some of the Shabiha did come from there," said Mohammed.

Umm Khaled said of the nearby Alawite communities: "We had no problems with them for a long time, but now we fear them. We don't want to go near their villages."

The spectre of sectarian war is increasingly looming over the Syrian uprising, which is being led by the country's Sunni majority. While Assad retains support from within the Sunni establishment, particularly the merchant class, there are signs that his Sunni backing is beginning to ebb in some quarters. In the past fortnight a leading Sunni brigadier general and family friend of the Assads, Manaf Tlass, as well as a senior diplomat, Syria's ambassador to Iraq, have defected. Assad's support among the Alawite sect, from which the regime has historically drawn its key members, is thought to remain solid. Sections of Syria's minorities communities, including Christians, Druze and Kurds are increasingly threatened by the uprising, which they believe has strong Islamist undertones.

Syria's key ally Russia has denounced the massacre, but has not apportioned blame. The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has condemned Damascus. The US and its European allies are urging the UN Security Council to impose sanctions against Syria. – guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012

Additional reporting by Hala Kilani and Lubna Naji