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Syria declared a 'civil war' as troops target Damascus

By Loveday Morris in Beirut

Syrian rebels backtracked yesterday on the number of victims identified as killed in a massacre at Tremseh, as a new assault by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad was reported in the suburbs of the capital Damascus.

Despite initially claiming that more than 200 civilians died in last week's atrocity, yesterday, opposition activists pared that list down to 68 names.

However, Abu Adnan, an activist in the Hama area, said about 30 bodies were too badly burnt to be identified and other corpses were "stolen" by Mr Assad's troops. He maintained that about 150 people perished.

Violence is now so widespread that the International Committee of the Red Cross joined senior UN officials yesterday in saying that the conflict was now a full-blown civil war. Defining it as such means international humanitarian law applies to both sides, which would make it easier for perpetrators of atrocities to be held to account at the International Criminal Court.

In Damascus yesterday, residents fled the al-Tadamon district as shelling and heavy gunfire rocked the area following overnight clashes in nearby Hajar al-Aswad.

The road to Damascus airport was closed and the towns of Aqraba and Sidi Kadad and Palestinian refugee camps in the area were surrounded by tanks and armoured vehicles last night, the Local Co-ordination Committees said.

The rising violence has added urgency to efforts to bring an end to the conflict, which have been stymied at the UN Security Council by Russia. The UN's special envoy, Kofi Annan, will fly to Moscow today for talks with President Vladimir Putin.

Meanwhile, Iran said yesterday it would be happy to broker talks between the government and opposition, an offer that was swiftly rejected by the Syrian National Council.

The UN continued its investigation into what happened at Tremseh. After an initial visit by observers over the weekend, it said Mr Assad's forces targeted the homes of army defectors, and a wide rage of weapons, including artillery, mortars and small arms, were used in the assault.

But a Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, accused the UN of making "rushed" statements. "Government forces did not use planes, or helicopters, or tanks or artillery. The heaviest weapon used was an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade)," he said. "What happened was not a massacre . . . what happened was a military operation."

The list of those killed at Tremseh included only one woman. Most were men of fighting age. However, five children under 18 were included.

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