Troops ‘massacre’ Syrian villagers

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Government forces surrounded residents of a Syrian village and killed all those trapped – more than 100 people – in a barrage of rockets, tank shells, bombs and gunfire that lasted for hours, said a witness and activist groups.

The attack on Tuesday pushed the death toll for two days of violence across Syria to more than 200, and was one of the deadliest single events of the entire nine-month uprising against President Bashar Assad’s authoritarian rule.

The offensive targeted the village of Kfar Owaid, about 30 miles from the northern border with Turkey. It is part of the rugged mountainous region of Jabal al-Zawiyah, which has been the scene of clashes between troops and army defectors and intense anti-government protests for weeks. Syrian troops began attacking the region on Saturday, residents said.

“It was an organized massacre,” said Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the British-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. “The troops surrounded people then killed them.”

Syrian officials have not commented on the allegations.

One villager who is an anti-government activist told reporters by telephone that scores of residents and activists fled on Tuesday morning to the nearby Budnaya Valley, where they were completely surrounded by troops. The forces bombarded them with tank shells, rockets and heavy machine gun fire. The man, who identified himself only as Abu Rabih for fear of government reprisal, said troops also used bombs filled with nails to increase casualties.

“What happened yesterday was a crime against humanity,” Abu Rabih said. He said 110 people were killed in the attack and 56 of the dead were buried in Kfar Owaid yesterday. Others were buried in villages nearby.

Abu Rabih said the Jabal al-Zawiyah region has been under intense attack by government forces since Saturday.

Syria’s president Bashar Assad agreed on Monday to allow foreign monitors under an Arab League plan aimed at stopping the bloodshed. But the huge toll from the crackdown on Monday and Tuesday has reinforced opposition suspicions he is just playing for time to stall a new round of international condemnation and sanctions.

The crackdown has left Mr Assad internationally isolated and under tremendous pressure from the Arab world as well as the West.

The Arab League plan calls for Syria to halt its crackdown, open talks with the opposition, withdraw military forces from city streets and allow in human rights workers and journalists

Despite intensified violence, the Arab League appeared to be going ahead with its plans to send the monitors.

In Cairo, Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby appealed to the Syrian government to shoulder its responsibilities to protect civilians and expressed deep concern about reports of an escalation of violence.

The 22-member Arab League has also suspended Syria’s membership and brought in economic and diplomatic sanctions. Mr Assad’s regime agreed to allow the monitoring mission after Arab leaders said they would turn to the United Nations Security Council to try to end the crackdown.

The Syrian conflict, which began with peaceful protests in March, has become increasingly militarised in recent weeks, with clashes nearly every day between troops and army defectors who have joined the movement against Assad. Idlib province has witnessed some of the most intense clashes. The UN says more than 5,000 people have died in unrest since March.

Activists said this bloody crackdown may be an attempt by the regime to crush defectors before the monitors arrive. On Monday, security forces killed up to 70 army defectors as they were deserting their military posts in Idlib near the Turkish border, activists said.