(Reuters) – The United States has branded Syria’s leaders murderers after an attack on a village by President Bashar al-Assad’s troops left dozens dead, but there was no break in the deadlock among world powers over how to bring about an end to the bloodshed.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also condemned what his monitors on the ground had seen as an “indiscriminate” bombardment that included rocket-firing helicopters of the town of Tremseh in rebellious Hama province, and he questioned Assad’s commitment to a U.N.-sponsored peace plan for Syria.
A violence monitoring group said 30 people were killed around the country on Saturday morning, several of them by an army bombardment in Homs province, a focus of the 17-month pro-democracy revolt that Western powers say has left 17,000 dead.
In contrast to the United States, which branded Syria’s leaders murderers,China said it strongly condemned “behavior which harms innocent civilians” but did not say who it believed carried out Thursday’s attack on the town of Tremseh in rebellious Hama province.
China and Russia continue to block Western efforts to impose harsher sanctions on Syria or take any steps Moscow and Beijing view as supporting “regime change” in Damascus.
“We again urge all relevant sides in Syria to take practical steps, immediately stop all violence, (and) earnestly protect civilians,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said in a short statement.
Accounts from opposition activists cited a death toll ranging from over 100 to more than twice that figure – either way one of the bloodiest incidents in 17 months of conflict.
“We were surrounded from four sides … with tanks and armored vehicles, and the helicopters were hovering above,” said an unidentified man on amateur video footage purportedly filmed in Tremseh and posted on the Internet on Saturday.
“They burned people in front of our eyes, they held the men like this and stabbed them,” he said, pointing to his chest and then to an artery in his throat. He said his cousin’s throat was slit. “They took out people’s eyes.”
One group said rebel fighters rushed to reinforce the village after it came under attack by infantry, artillery and aircraft, leading to a battle that lasted seven hours.
In a pattern seen elsewhere in recent months, rebels accused local irregular militiamen known as shabbiha, from Assad’s Alawite minority, of swooping on the battered village, home mostly to Sunni Muslims, and of killing their neighbors in a sectarian attack some called ethnic cleansing.
Syrian state television accused “armed terrorist groups” of committing a massacre at Tremseh, but gave no death toll.
Assad, who succeeded his late father 12 years ago, has enough firepower to suppress the opposition and can count on backing from both Shi’ite Iran, hostile to the Sunni Arabs who rule most states in the region, and Syria’s Cold War ally Russia.
Moscow rejects the Western insistence that Assad must go and says a peace process must come from within Syria. It is hosting U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan next week, as diplomats at the Security Council will resume efforts to narrow differences over raising pressure on Damascus.
Annan called events at Tremseh a “grim reminder” that U.N. resolutions calling for peace were being flouted and wrote to the Council urging it to penalize Syria for failing to comply. But talks on Friday showed little progress.
One senior Western diplomat said: “The problem is Russia.
“I’m not saying they are not working behind the scenes, but clearly it hasn’t worked and they have to admit that either they haven’t been pushing Assad hard enough or they have and they have failed to persuade him.”
Critics of Western powers’ reluctance to undertake direct military action themselves say they are using Russia as a scapegoat.
Washington and its European and Arab allies are wary of the rebel forces, which have proved fractious, but believe an erosion of support for Assad within the elite – as seen in high-level defections in the past week – may in time allow for a period of political transition without him.
A Tremseh activist named Ahmed told Reuters there were 60 bodies at the mosque, of whom 20 were identified: “There are more bodies in the fields, bodies in the rivers and in houses.”
One piece of film to appear on the Internet showed the corpses of 15 young men with faces or shirts drenched in blood. Most wore T-shirts and jeans. There were no women or children.
Other videos showed rows of bodies wrapped in blankets, sheets and makeshift shrouds, some leaking blood. One man pulled aside a blanket to display a burnt corpse. Men placed wrapped bodies in a breeze-block trench for burial.
In a mosque packed with grieving women and distraught men, bodies were collected, identified and prepared. Children stepped gingerly among the corpses covering the floor.