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 today 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. 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.