Updates from the field:
The Syrian military attack on Tremseh mainly targeted guerrilla forces and their supporters, the United Nations has said, hours after its observers entered the battered town.New Evidence Points to Syrian Firefight:
Residents of Tremseh, a small farming community in central Syria, say they were all targets of a bombardment on Thursday that involved mortars, artillery and helicopters. They claim that close to 150 people from the town are dead or missing.
The Syrian foreign ministry said on Sunday that 37 opposition fighters and two civilians had been killed in an operation against rebels who were using the town as a base to launch attacks on other areas.
The conflicting claims came as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it now regarded the violence in Syria as a civil war – a significant distinction that means international humanitarian law now applies in the country and any attacks on civilians and the abuse or killing of detainees could now constitute war crimes.
The Geneva-based agency had previously classed the violence in Syria as localised civil wars in three areas: Homs, Hama and Idlib. But hostilities have spread, with parts of southern Damascus on Sunday experiencing some of its heaviest daytime fighting to date, according to Reuters.
"There is a non-international armed conflict in Syria. Not every place is affected, but it is not only limited to those three areas; it has spread to several other areas," said an ICRC spokesman, Hicham Hassan.
There remains uncertainty over the deaths last week in Tremseh. The UN monitoring mission in Syria, which sent an 11-vehicle team of observers to the town, said in a statement late on Saturday: "The attack on Tremseh appeared targeted at specific groups and houses, mainly of army defectors and activists."
Opposition sources in Hama, around 20 miles south-east of Tremseh, say they have compiled a list of 103 fatalities, all of whom are male, which adds weight to the view that fighting-aged males were at least partly targeted.
Syria's government says it was fighting a terror gang in Tremseh, some of whose members had been responsible for a massacre in June in al-Kubeir village, a farming community in nearby Homs province.
A foreign ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, said on Sunday: "What happened in Tremseh was a military operation, not a massacre." He denied accusations by the UN that state forces used heavy weapons and helicopters in the attack. "Government forces did not use planes or helicopters or tanks or artillery. The heaviest weapon used was an RPG ," Makdissi said.
"Yesterday we received a letter from Mr Kofi Annan [the UN envoy] addressed to the foreign minister, Walid al-Moualem. The least that can be said about this letter about what happened in Tremseh is that it did not rely on facts. As diplomatically as possible, we say that this letter was very rushed."
To support its claims, the government has offered testimonies of men it said had been ringleaders of a gang in Tremseh who had allegedly made confessions after their capture.
Observers who made it to Tremseh on Saturday reported scenes of destruction in the wake of the fighting, which the UN earlier said had involved between 50-100 explosions caused by artillery shells or rockets fired from helicopters.
"There were pools of blood and blood spatters in rooms of several homes together with bullet cases," said the UN spokeswoman Sausan Ghosheh. "A wide range of weapons were used, including artillery, mortars and small arms."
Earlier Annan said he had been shocked and appalled by the violence in Tremseh. Monitors reported that many homes and a school had been badly damaged or destroyed.
Two Tremseh residents who spoke to the Observer on Saturday denied that guerrilla forces such as the Free Syria Army had been in Tremseh in large numbers before the fighting started. However, one witness said FSA elements had joined the battle by mid-afternoon on Thursday, when regime forces, backed by a militia, are thought to have entered the town.
Residents said they fled their homes and as regime forces entered and said some of them were hunted down in nearby crop fields. "We don't understand why they attacked us," said a local woman, Umm Khaled. "We haven't brought harm to the region. All we've done here is hold demonstrations.
"I swear that we don't have any terrorists, Salafists, or anyone from the outside here. People have been terrified ever since [regime forces] came to the village in January and killed 40 of us. This time they stole from our homes, they robbed jewellery from women. All of this because we support the revolution?"
New evidence on last week's killings in a village in central Syria indicate that the bloodshed may have involved a raid by heavily armed government forces to arrest male rebels that quickly evolved into a lopsided gunbattle in which opposition fighters were obliterated, rather than a deliberate massacre of around 200 civilians as initially reported by Syrian opposition leaders and their Western allies.
Preliminary findings by a team of Syria-based United Nations observers may ease the pressure on Russia and China to back tougher measures against Bashar al-Assad's government, underscoring how competing narratives and interpretations of events in Syria continue to divide world powers over how to end a conflict now recognized by most as a civil war.
Two casualty lists with the names, genders and ages of victims compiled by separate activist networks and seen by The Wall Street Journal on Sunday also appeared to corroborate this version of events in Treimseh, northwest of the city of Hama. The majority of the 65 to 68 people identified so far were men in their 20s, most likely rebels from Treimseh and surrounding villages affiliated to the so-called Free Syrian Army of local fighters and defecting military personnel.
"On the basis of some of the destruction observed in the town and the witness accounts, the attack appears targeted at army defectors and activists," said Sausan Ghosheh, spokeswoman for the U.N. observer team in Syria, on Sunday, hours after the monitors visited the village.
In a news conference in Damascus earlier Sunday, Syria's foreign-ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, insisted that the regime had every right to dispatch troops to Treimseh on Thursday to confront the fighters, whom he said had stockpiled an arsenal of weapons and ammunition inside the village to use as a launch pad for attacks on army checkpoints in the Hama countryside.
Mr. Makdissi said initial reports of a civilian massacre and the strong reactions that followed from the likes of U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were primarily intended to pressure Mr. Assad's ally Russia into backing a proposed U.N. Security Council resolution this week that would impose tough trade and financial sanctions on Damascus if it continues to use heavy weapons against populated areas.
"They wanted a vitamin boost to defeat the wise Russian endeavors in the Security Council," he said.