What activists are calling the worst of three large-scale massacres in Syria since late May is sparking widespread outrage, with U.N. envoy Kofi Annan singling out the Syrian government for the violence and the opposition demanding swift international action.
With unusual candor, Annan Friday blamed government forces and armed militiamen backed by tanks and helicopters for slaughtering as many as 220 people in the Sunni farming village of Tremseh, in rebellious Hama province.
Condemning what he called "atrocities" and voicing shock at the "intense fighting, significant casualties and the confirmed use of heavy weaponry," Annan said the Syrian government had violated its commitments to the peace plan he brokered in April.
Rebel backers claim the attack on Thursday was the worst single act of violence since the country's revolt against President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011.
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood also blamed Assad for the reported massacre and what it called Syria's foreign backers, including Russia, Iran and Annan. Protests broke out in multiple cities across Syria Friday, with demonstrators condemning the killings in Tremseh.
Syrian state media blamed the massacre on dozens of terrorists who overran Tremseh, killing and wounding dozens of civilians. It said the attackers "ransacked, destroyed and burned scores of houses" before "competent authorities" arrived.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday that credible reports provided indisputable evidence that the regime deliberately murdered innocent civilians.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the massacre casts "serious doubts" on Syrian President Assad's commitment to a U.N. backed peace plan.
UN debates new sanctions
Report of the massacre comes as the U.N. Security Council debates imposing tough new sanctions on Syria. Russia has once again threatened to veto any sanctions.
Massacres Reported in Syria
May 25: More than 100 people killed in Taldou in Houla.
June 6: More than 70 people killed in Mazraat-al-Qubeir in Hama.
July 13: More than 150 people killed in Tremseh in Hama.
Norwegian Gen. Robert Mood told journalists in Damascus that U.N. observers based in Hama witnessed "continuous fighting in the area of Tremseh ... which involved mechanized units, indirect fire, as well as helicopters." Mood added that observers were prepared to go to Tremseh if a cease-fire is in place:
The White House said further "atrocities" in Syria by Assad's government should end any doubts on the need for a coordinated international response at the United Nations.
The Syrian National Council, the country's main exiled opposition group, called on the Security Council to "assume total responsibility to protect defenseless Syrians against these shameful crimes."
At a news conference in Istanbul, opposition leader Abdel Basset Syeda said responsibility for the massacre goes to the Syrian government's ally Russia, which he says has become "part of the conflict." Friendly nations, Syeda said, must "move from words to action" and "show real friendship."
Call for action
Syeda said the Syrian opposition is sending a delegation to the U.N. to press for quick action.
Middle East analyst Nadim Shehadi of Chatham House in London told VOA that it is a mistake for the international community to wait.
"Non-intervention bears a higher cost than intervention," he said. "It is wrong to wait for a massacre that is big enough to trigger an intervention. The international community, by not protecting the civilians, are turning what was originally a non-violent revolt against the regime into a civil war."
Rafif Jouejati, a spokeswoman for the Local Coordination Committees, an activist group with members throughout Syria, said the death toll from Thursday's attack could rise higher as more casualties are confirmed. She says a "consistent pattern" has emerged, where each attempt by the international community to reach a political solution in Syria is met by the Damascus government with a calculated escalation in violence.
Another activist group, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said it has confirmed the names of 63 people killed in the attack on Thursday, and expects the final toll to be far higher.
VOA cannot confirm events on the ground in Syria because the government severely restricts access for international journalists.
Multiple reports quoting activists and witnesses said a convoy of vehicles from nearby Alawite villages surrounded Tremseh early Thursday. Militiamen then blockaded the settlement and began randomly firing on houses as a helicopter flew overhead. Electricity and telephone lines were cut. Bodies were later recovered from fields, private homes and the nearby Orontes River.
The previous largest massacre in Syria took place in nearby Houla, when 108 men, women and children were killed on May 25 - the vast majority of them executed, according to a United Nations report. In June, it took U.N. monitors two days to reach the site of an alleged massacre of 78 people shot, stabbed or burned alive in the Sunni hamlet of Mazraat al-Qubeir by pro-government shabiha militiamen.
Most Assad loyalists - including the shabiha - are minority Alawites, who form a branch of Shi'ite Islam. The street protesters and fighters behind the uprising are mostly Sunni Muslims.
Activist groups have put the death toll in the 16-month-old conflict at more than 17,000 people.
US concerns about chemical weapons
Meanwhile, the United States says the international community will hold Syrian officials accountable if they fail to meet their duty to safeguard the country's stockpiles of chemical weapons.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland says the U.S. has repeatedly warned Syria it is obligated to protect those weapons.
Nuland made her comments after a prominent U.S. newspaper reported that Syria has started moving part of its chemical weapons arsenal out of storage facilities.
The Wall Street Journal quoted U.S. officials as saying Syria may use the weapons against rebels or civilians.
Syria is believed to have reserves of sarin nerve agent, mustard gas and cyanide.
Throughout the conflict in Syria, the newspaper said, U.S. officials and their allies in the region have been watching for changes in the status or location of Syria's alleged chemical weapons.
VOA's Snowiss reported from Washington and Yeranian from Cairo. Some information came from AP, AFP and Reuters.
The Revolution Leadership Council of Hama said Tremseh was first shelled, then invaded by pro-government militiamen of Assad's Alawite sect, who swept in and killed victims one by one. It said some civilians were killed while trying to flee.