U.N. says massacre ‘extension’ of Syria air force operation; Russia condemns killings


U.N. observers in Syria described an attack on a village in the Hama region, where about 220 people were killed, as “an extension of the SAAF (Syrian Arab Air Force) operation,” said a report from the U.N. mission, obtained by Reuters on Friday, as Russia called for an inquiry into the latest massacre in Syria as death toll mounted.

As many as 80 people have been killed on Friday by Syrian forces across the country, including 21 in Idlib, Al Arabiya reported citing General revolution Commission.

“The situation in Hama province continues to be highly volatile and unpredictable,” the so-called “flash report” from the observer mission said. “SAAF forces continue to target populated urban areas north of Hama City in a large scale.”

Opposition sources said about 220 people, mostly civilians were killed in the village of al-Tremsa when it was bombarded by helicopter gunships and tanks then stormed by militiamen who slaughtered some families on Thursday.

“The operation in al-Tremsa is assessed as an extension of the SAAF operation in Khan Sheikhoun to Souran over the recent number of days,” said the two-page report by the U.N. mission in Syria, known as UNSMIS.

There were no independent accounts of the number of dead or how they were killed. If scores of civilians were killed, this could be the worst atrocity in 16 months of fighting between rebels and the forces of President Bashar al-Assad.

A Syrian military spokesman, meanwhile, said that the Syrian army killed “many terrorists” but no civilians in al-Tremsa village in the central province of Hama.

“Army units carried out a special operation” on Thursday, the spokesperson said, “targeting armed terrorist groups and their leadership hide-outs.”

The operation “eradicated the terrorist groups’ lairs and killed many terrorists,” the spokesman said, adding that “the terrorists were dealt with, while there were no civilian victims.”

According to the UNSMIS report, a patrol of unarmed U.N. military observers could only get within about 4 miles (6 kilometers) of al-Tremsa and were stopped from getting closer by SAAF commanders because of “military operations.”

The patrol observed the situation from a few different locations around Tremsa for about eight hours during which time it heard more than 100 explosions, sporadic small arms and heavy machine gun fire and saw white and black smoke plumes.

It also saw an Mi-8 and two Mi-24 helicopters flying overhead and witnessed one of the Mi-24 helicopters firing air to ground rockets.

“The patrol received several calls from local contacts claiming 50 people had been killed and 150 wounded within Tremsa,” the report said. “Attempts (by the patrol) to contact the local military commander during this period were unsuccessful.”

Russia on Friday said it would urge U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan to work more closely with the Syrian opposition at talks in Moscow next week, and called for an inquiry into a massacre in Syria.

The Foreign Ministry said the massacre, in which opposition sources said about 220 people had been killed, served the interests of people who wanted a sectarian conflict in Syria, but did not directly apportion blame.

Russia has repeatedly defended Assad at the U.N. Security Council since the start of the uprising in Syria 16 months ago, but was urged by the Syrian opposition at talks in Moscow this week to do more to end the violence.

Annan’s spokesman in Geneva said the envoy expected to meet President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Monday, and the Russian ministry source told RIA news agency that Annan would discuss the crisis with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

“To be honest, we do not see our partners being as ready (as Russia) to work with the opposition, and Kofi Annan is the main mediator of this process,” Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov was quoted as saying by Interfax.

“Unfortunately, so far we don't see any practical results from his and his team's contact with the opposition,” he said.

It was not clear what message Russia wanted Annan to convey to the opposition, with which Moscow has failed to reach agreement on how to resolve the crisis, notably because the opposition insists Assad's departure must be a precondition of political dialogue in Syria.

The Syrian opposition leaders left Moscow this week saying Russia’'s policies were helping prolong the bloodshed and Moscow has said both sides in the conflict must work to end it.

The Russian Foreign Ministry's statement gave no direct indication of who it blamed for the massacre in a village in the rebellious Hama region of Syria.

“We have no doubt that this wrongdoing serves the interests of those powers that are not seeking peace but persistently seek to sow the seeds of inter-confessional and civilian conflict on Syrian soil,” it said.

Russia has sent what foreign diplomats call conflicting signals that could point to a shift, but as yet no big change, in its stance as it seeks to ensure it keeps a foothold in the pivotal Middle East country if its ally Assad goes.

Moscow said on Thursday it would not agree to a threat of sanctions to end the conflict in Syria as the U.N. Security Council began negotiations on a resolution to extend a monitoring mission in Syria.

In a further sign of Russia’s determination to keep a foothold in the region if Assad departs, military sources said Russian warships had left this week for Syria, where Moscow has a naval maintenance facility.

But Gatilov’s call for Annan to work more with the Syrian opposition, and the increased contacts with Assad's opponents, suggested Russia may also be looking for ways to facilitate a political transition.

A Russian arms trade official was quoted this week as saying Moscow would deliver no more weapons to Assad while the fighting continued.