London: Helicopter gunships and tanks of the Syrian government are believed to have killed as many as 200 villagers in the country’s Hama province, making it the ‘worst massacre’ that has gripped the country, since the uprisings began more than a year ago to oust President Basshar al-Assad.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that Syrian troops along with the pro-government Shabbiha militia shelled the village of Treimsa, killing several people while more were shot later in the head execution-style.
Assad’s Army also reportedly destroyed a village school while the number of children killed is yet unknown.
“The village school was totally destroyed,” The Telegraph quoted a Hama-based activist, Abu Ghazi, as saying.
According to the report, bodies of over 30 civilians have been identified but the names of more than 100 still remain unknown.
The state-run SANA news service confirmed a massacre hit the town of Treimsa but gave no indication of the number of civilians killed.
“There were heavy losses among the ranks of the terrorists," said the report, adding that three soldiers were killed.
Activists say more than 17,000 people have been killed since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began in March 2011, and he is coming under growing international pressure to stop the violence. But as the bloodshed continues, and the conflict morphs into an armed insurgency, hopes for a peaceful transition are dimming.
The latest report of violence came in the wake of the highest-level defector yet from President Bashar Assad`s regime — his ambassador to Iraq.
Defections from the Syrian regime have stirred hopes in the West Assad`s inner circle will start abandoning him in greater numbers, hastening his downfall.
But the tightly protected regime has largely held together over the course of the 16-month-old uprising, driven by a mixture of fear and loyalty.
The latest official to flee, Ambassador Nawaf Fares, announced that he was joining the revolution, asserting Thursday that only force will drive Assad from power.
"There is no road map ever with Bashar Assad, because any plan, any statement that is agreed on internationally he delays on and ignores," Fares told the Al-Jazeera satellite channel. "There is no way that he can be pushed from power without force, and the Syrian people realise this."
Syria`s Foreign Ministry denounced Fares, saying he should face "legal and disciplinary accountability”.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell hailed what he called the "first major diplomatic defection”, adding: "We think this a wider sign that the regime is feeling the pressure. The pressure is up and the regime is really starting to fall apart."
Fares is the second prominent Syrian to break with the regime in less than a week. Brigadier General Manaf Tlass, an Assad confidant and son of a former defence minister, defected last week, but has not spoken publicly.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Tlass has been in contact with the Syrian opposition. He would not comment on reports that Tlass was in Paris.
"I know that there is some closeness between the opposition and the general... Contact has been made," Fabius told journalists in Paris.
Assad`s regime has suffered a steady stream of low-level Army defectors, who have joined a group of dissidents known as the Free Syrian Army, now numbering in the tens of thousands. There have been several high-level defections in the past — including a Syrian fighter pilot who flew his plane to neighbouring Jordan during a training mission in June in a brazen move.
Although the defections are notable, Assad`s regime has remained remarkably airtight, particularly compared with the haemorrhaging of Muammar Gaddafi`s inner circle in Libya in 2011.
(With Agency inputs)