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Syria opposition alleges massacre of more than 100

Foes of President Bashar Assad say security forces surrounded and killed Syrians in a hail of tank and machine-gun fire in Idlib province.

December 21, 2011|By Alexandra Zavis, Kati Paul and Rima Marrouch, Los Angeles Times
  • Opposition fighters with the Free Syrian Army watch for pro-government forces in Idlib province.
Opposition fighters with the Free Syrian Army watch for pro-government… (Sezayi Erken, AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Beirut —  

In one of the single deadliest episodes reported during the 9-month-old uprising, Syrian security forces surrounded and killed more than 100 people in a hail of tank and machine-gun fire in a valley near the Turkish border, opposition activists said.

The attack Tuesday near the village of Kfar Owaid came as government forces pressed an offensive against a mountainous region in Idlib province, in northwestern Syria, that has been gripped for weeks by protests and fierce clashes with military defectors.

Opposition groups say that all told, more than 200 people have been killed in two days of violence in the region. They accuse the government of trying to crush resistance to President Bashar Assad's government before an advance team of Arab observers arrives Thursday to monitor implementation of a regional peace initiative.

Journalists are heavily restricted in Syria and it was not possible to independently verify the accounts by activists and witnesses. The official Syrian Arab News Agency said authorities in Idlib and the southern province of Dara had "stormed dens of armed terrorist groups," arresting dozens of wanted men and seizing large quantities of weapons, ammunition, explosives, communications equipment and night-vision goggles. A number of others were killed or wounded in clashes, it said.

Syrian officials regularly blame such bloodshed on armed gangs, which it charges are incited and supported from abroad.

The White House said it was "deeply disturbed" by the reports of Tuesday's attack, and it renewed its demand that Assad step down. France called it a "massacre." Turkey, formerly a close ally of Assad, said the slaying of so many people was unacceptable after Syria had agreed to the Arab League peace plan. And the 22-member league reminded Damascus of its responsibilities to protect civilians under the initiative.

The Jabal Zawiyah mountains near Turkey are a haven for fighters who have come together under the banner of the Free Syrian Army. They have been waging an escalating insurgency against Assad's forces in Idlib, Homs, Dara and other opposition strongholds. The group's leadership is based across the border in Turkey.

Activists reached Wednesday in Idlib said government forces flooded the region with reinforcements over the weekend and started attacking villages that had been providing refuge and support to the insurgents.

"As the troops were passing through all the cities and towns in the area, they were firing artillery and tank shells and heavy machine guns, randomly and continuously," said an activist reached via a satellite connection, who gave his name as Raid. He said he was hiding in woods near his village of Kafr Nabel with scores of other activists and residents. "Daily, we live with the voices of missiles and explosions," he said.

Khalid Ibrahim Aslan, a Syrian laborer reached at a hospital in Turkey, said he was shot in the legs when security forces stormed his village of Shinan on Monday.

"I lost consciousness, but some young people lifted me and carried me to a safe place and then smuggled me to a hospital in Antakya," he said. "I was lucky. When I was running I saw that people were not able to help the wounded. They would leave them and run."

As many as 86 army conscripts tried to defect Monday and were killed in heavy shelling that also claimed the lives of 12 civilians in the village of Kansafra, said Mousab Azzawi of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

On Tuesday, he said, forces assaulted Kfar Owaid, sending activists and residents fleeing into the wooded valley north of the village, where they were surrounded and pummeled for hours with tank and machine-gun fire.

Activists said they had collected the names of 56 of the 111 people killed in and near Kfar Owaid. They included an imam whose head was said to have been hung on the door of a mosque, according to Rami Nakhle, a member of the Syrian National Council, the country's most prominent opposition bloc.

"The word 'massacre' seems like too small a word to describe what happened," said Raid, the activist sheltering in the woods.

As many as 100 more army defectors were also injured or killed in clashes Tuesday with security forces, activists said. Explosions reverberated across the area Wednesday as the assault continued, they said.

The Syrian National Council called on the Arab League and the United Nations on Wednesday to protect civilians, saying nearly 250 people had been killed in the country in the 48 hours ending Tuesday.

The council is pressing for the creation of safe zones, enforced by the international community, to protect civilians and insurgents fighting Assad's forces. His regime has fiercely opposed the involvement of international forces, possibly out of fear that it could lead to the kind of military campaign that helped topple the late Moammar Kadafi in Libya.

Under mounting pressure, Syria said Monday that it would admit observers to monitor the Arab League peace plan, which calls for the withdrawal of security forces from urban areas and dialogue with the opposition.

Opposition activists dismissed the move as a ploy to buy more time for a crackdown that the United Nations estimates has killed more than 5,000 people since March, when largely peaceful antigovernment protests began. The government disputes the figure, and says more than 1,100 security forces have been killed in that period.

alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

Paul and Marrouch are special correspondents.

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