A massacre that could be the deadliest yet witnessed in Syria's 16 months of violent unrest was reported by activists last night, with claims that as many as 220 people had been killed in a village near Hama during a combined assault by the army and militia.
A sustained attack by soldiers and artillery was followed by gangs of pro-regime Shabbiha storming Tremseh, according to the Hama Revolutionary Council, which said the victims "died from bombardment by tanks and helicopters, artillery shelling and summary executions". The reports were yet to be verified on the ground, with the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights saying last night that it had only managed to confirm 30 deaths so far, but local opposition figures told of horrifying scenes with civilians being executed with shots to the head.
One activist, Fadi Sameh, told Reuters: "Whole houses have been destroyed and burned from the shelling." Ahmed, from the Union of Hama Revolutionaries, added: "There are more bodies in the fields, bodies in the rivers and in houses."
The reports come at a sensitive time diplomatically, as the UK has just circulated a draft resolution at the UN Security Council which would open the door for military intervention.
Russia and the UK are set for a stand-off at the Security Council after circulating rival plans for a resolution. The Western-backed British draft threatens increased sanctions against the Syrian regime if it does not withdraw heavy weaponry from civilian areas within 10 days. But Russia, which circulated a much weaker draft resolution, said it would veto the British draft.
Evidence also emerged yesterday that President Bashar al-Assad may be using cluster bombs against his own people. Videos posted online show what experts believe to be cluster munitions, which can kill and maim indiscriminately and can remain lethal for decades after a conflict.
Syria is not among 111 countries to have signed a convention banning cluster bombs and is known to have a stockpile. Deployed from the air or ground, the bombs scatter dozens of bomblets over an area the size of several football fields. They also have a high fail rate, meaning many remain unexploded, becoming mines; 98 per cent of cluster bomb casualties are civilians.
Second official quits regime
As the international community seeks to bring an end to the violence, the highest-ranking Syrian diplomat to defect to the opposition said yesterday that nothing short of President Bashar al-Assad's overthrow was acceptable.
Nawaf Fares, Syria's former ambassador to Iraq, told Al-Jazeera that only force could remove Mr Assad. The former envoy, who defected on Wednesday, was the second senior official to quit in a week.
The other, Brigadier-General Manaf Tlass, has not spoken publicly since he defected. AP