Killing of 200 villagers brings call for international response

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UN monitors have confirmed helicopter gunships and tanks rained shells on a central farming village in Syria amid reports as many as 200 people were killed there in the latest in a series of reported massacres.

International envoy Kofi Annan said yesterday he was “shocked and appalled” by reports of the ground and air assault on the village of Tremseh.

Syrian activists have posted videos they say show at least 17 of the dozens of people reportedly killed in heavy government shelling which they say was followed by an onslaught by armed thugs who burned and killed fleeing residents in the streets.

Mr Annan brokered a peace plan for Syria that has been widely flouted by both sides of the conflict and yesterday singled out the government for criticism – saying the Tremseh killings violate “the government’s undertaking to cease the use of heavy weapons in population centres”.

The head of the UN observer mission in Syria said his teams could confirm government forces waged attacks from the ground and air in Tremseh.

Norwegian Major General Robert Mood said the fighting involved helicopters and mechanised units” – indicating the government was using heavy weapons. He described the assault as “continuous violence”.

Nearly 300 UN observers sent to monitor the ceasefire are confined to their hotels because of the escalating violence. But Maj Gen Mood says the observers stationed in Hama were able to verify the fighting.

Much remains unclear about what happened in Tremseh and why Mr Assad’s troops moved against the isolated village. Local activists could not provide lists of names, saying they were still being compiled.

But the violence was certain to raise even more doubts about the faltering peace efforts of Mr Annan, recalling a massacre in late May in the area of Houla, about 22 miles south of Tremseh, where more than 100 people were killed.

And last month, British journalists accompanied UN monitors to the farming village at Mazraat al-Qubair, in the central Homs district, where some 78 residents, many of them women and children, were reportedly executed and burned by militia loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

One amateur video posted online showed the dead bodies of 15 men in Tremseh, lined up on a floor. Some are covered in blood and have wounds to their heads and chests.

The Syrian government said more than 50 people were killed when Syrian forces clashed with “armed gangs” that were terrorising village residents.

Foreign Secretary William Hague pledged to redouble efforts to get UN security council action against Bashar Assad’s regime as he condemned the massacre.

Mr Hague insisted the incident should increase the pressure for a united response from the international community, including Russia and China.

“Everything we have seen of the Syrian regime’s behaviour over the last 17 months suggests that these reports are credible,” he said. “They demand a united response from the international community.”

Mr Hague said the legally-binding resolution should order the regime to fulfil Kofi Annan’s peace plan by withdrawing its military from residential areas, and establish a transitional government.

British diplomats will continue negotiations at the Security Council, he said.

“Our thoughts are with the Syrian people, and all those who have suffered as a result of this latest atrocity,” he added. “More than 17,000 people have died already. The time has come for decisive diplomatic action to bring about a peaceful end to the violence. All members of the Security Council must shoulder their responsibility to bring this about.”