CAIRO — The Syrian government denied Sunday that it used tanks and helicopters to attack the village of Tremseh in Hama province on Thursday. Activists reported mass killings in the village, but a government spokesman said only two civilians and 37 armed individuals were killed in what Damascus said was a defensive operation. The U.N. observers were at Tremseh on Sunday investigating events.
U.N. military and civilian observers entered Tremseh for a second consecutive day on Sunday to try to verify reports of a military operation on the village. On Saturday, the U.N. supervision mission, known by its acronym UNSMIS, confirmed an attack had taken place using a variety of weapons, including artillery, mortars and small arms.
At a news conference in Damascus Sunday, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Jihad Makdissi denied the army had used tanks, helicopters and heavy weapons to target the town.
He said yes, there was a massacre. What happened, he said, was not an attack by the army on innocent civilians but a clash between regular forces and armed groups.
UNSMIS spokeswoman Sausan Ghosheh said the monitors report only what they can see and verify.
“When we went into Tremseh what we saw was an attack that appeared to target specific groups and houses mainly of army defectors and activists. How it started, who started the whole thing is something that we cannot verify right now,” she said.
On Friday, the head of the U.N. mission, Major General Robert Mood, said one of his teams positioned outside Tremseh confirmed helicopters in action and the presence of Syrian forces in government checkpoints near the village.
The next day after a cease-fire was confirmed, a group of U.N. observers made an initial foray into the village, where they reported seeing pools of blood and blood spatters in rooms of several homes together with bullet cases. They also saw a burned school and damaged houses with signs of internal burning in five of them.
The U.N. mission is still working to verify numbers of casualties.
The verification mission to Tremseh is the first in nearly a month, since General Mood suspended the work of the 300 unarmed observers on June 16 due to escalating violence. But monitors do continue to carry out humanitarian work, assessing the impact of violence on civilians and visiting hospitals, schools and camps for displaced persons.
Meanwhile, the deadline for a U.N. Security Council decision on the future of the monitoring mission draws near later this week.
A spokesman for U.N.-Arab League mediator Kofi Annan said he would travel to Moscow on Monday for two days of talks with President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Moscow has repeatedly blocked strong action on Syria in the U.N. Security Council and recently put forward a draft resolution that would extend the U.N. monitoring mission for another three months, but ignores a Western call for sanctions should either side obstruct the mission or fail to stop fighting.
Activists say the violence in Syria over the past 16 months has killed some 16,000 people. The United Nations stopped trying to estimate the death toll months ago. With few independent journalists allowed into the country, it has been difficult to verify reports.