By Marwan Makdesi
DAMASCUS, July 15 Syria denied on Sunday
accusations by special envoy Kofi Annan that it used heavy
weapons or helicopters in clashes in the village of Tremseh last
week, saying his comments about the fighting, which activists
called a massacre, were "rushed".
Jihad Makdissi, spokesman for Syria's Foreign Ministry, said
seat least 37 fighters and two civilians were killed in clashes
during a security force campaign against the town in central
Hama, from which the government said rebels were launching
attacks on other areas.
Activists' estimates of the death toll ranges from 100 to
220, many of them whole families in the village of Tremseh,
where United Nations monitors say there was heavy fighting on
"Government forces did not use planes, or helicopters, or
tanks or artillery. The heaviest weapon used was an RPG (rocket
propelled grenade)," Makdissi told reporters at a news
conference in Damascus.
"What happened was not a massacre ... what happened was a
military operation. They were clashes between security forces,
whose duty is to defend civilians, and heavily armed forces that
don't believe in a political solution."
Syria has become mired in a bloody revolt against President
Bashar al-Assad that is now in its seventeenth month. Some
foreign officials now say the uprising that began as street
protests has morphed into a civil war.
So far, video published by activists said to be from the
small village has shown blood drenched and burned corpses of
young men, who could have been rebel fighters.
Makdissi also responded to reports of the desertion of
General Manaf Tlas, a member of the Assad inner circle, saying
he "left without permission". It was the first government
acknowledgment of his disappearance, but Makdissi did not
comment on reports that Tlas defected to the opposition.
The desertion of Tlas, a cadet college classmate and
personal friend of Assad, was one of the first signs earlier
this month of cracks appearing in a governing elite that had
previously looked unshakeable.
While the United States and its European and Arab allies are
wary of rebel forces in Syria, which have proved fractious, they
hope an erosion of support for Assad within the elite may in
time allow for a political transition without him.
STATE OF DEFENCE, NOT ATTACK
Special envoy Annan, who is leading efforts to implement a
peace initiative in Syria, said on Friday that Syria had
violated its commitments to U.N.-backed peace efforts.
"I am shocked and appalled by news coming out of the village
of Tremseh, near Hama, of intense fighting, significant
casualties, and the confirmed use of heavy weaponry such as
artillery, tanks and helicopters," he said in a statement.
"This is in violation of the government's undertaking to
cease the use of heavy weapons in population centres and its
commitment to the six-point plan."
Makdissi rejected Annan's accusations, which were repeated
in a letter sent to 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," the spokesman said.
Makdissi said statements on Saturday from a group of United
Nations observers sent to Tremseh confirmed Syria's version of
events. The group said the violence appeared to be attacks
targeting rebels and opposition activists.
But their report also said artillery and mortars were used,
and the head of the monitoring mission said a day earlier that
monitors in the province had reported use of helicopters and
Makdissi said accusations of a fierce attack were
implausible given the tiny size of the village.
"Everything that has been said on the use of heavy weapons
in an assault on a village no bigger than 1 km squared is
completely untrue," he said, denying that villagers were
targeted. "We are in a state of self-defence, not a state of