Syria Denies Use of Heavy Weapons in Deadly Village Fight

By THE NEW YORK TIMES

The Syrian government denied on Sunday that it had used heavy weapons to massacre civilians, after United Nations observers gave more details of the deadly violence in the village of Tremseh, which left scores dead and drew immediate international condemnation.

As continued fighting was reported in locations across Syria, the International Committee of the Red Cross said in Geneva on Sunday that it now considered the conflict a civil war.

Jihad Makdissi, a spokesman for the Syrian Foreign Ministry, said the violence in Tremseh on Thursday was a military operation against armed opponents of the government, and not a massacre, The Associated Press reported.

“What happened wasn’t an attack on civilians,” The A.P. quoted Mr. Makdissi telling reporters in Damascus, the capital. “What has been said about the use of heavy weapons is baseless.” He gave a death toll of 39, of whom he said only 2 were civilians, The A.P. said; activists have given a much higher estimates ranging to more than 100 people killed.

The leader of the United Nations observer mission in Syria said on Friday that monitors stationed near Tremseh saw the army using heavy weaponry and attack helicopters. Details that emerged on Saturday suggested that the violence in Tremseh might have been a lopsided fight between the army, pursuing its opponents, and local fighters who were trying to defend the village. Nearly all of the dead were young men, according to a list of 103 victims compiled by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group based in London that has a network of contacts in Syria.

Independent verification of events in Syria is often all but impossible, because the government bars most news media from working independently in the country.

Reuters reported on Sunday that opposition fighters were clashing with government forces in the Damascus neighborhood of Al Tadamon during the day after a night of sustained battles in the nearby Hajar al-Aswad district.

“There is the sound of heavy gunfire,” The A.P. quoted Samir al-Shami, an activist, as saying over an Internet video link. “And there is smoke rising from the area. There are already some wounded and residents are trying to flee.” Reuters said that Mr. Shami could see armoured vehicles headed for the neighbourhood.

Bloomberg News reported, citing the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, that government forces stormed a neighborhood in Dara’a and used helicopters and artillery in Deir al-Zour. Another opposition group, the Local Coordination Committees, said artillery was used in Hama as well.

The Red Cross’s declaration that the Syrian conflict is a civil war, confirming what many observers have already said, may affect what uses of force are legally justifiable under international law, The A.P. said. The Red Cross’s assessment may also form the basis for war crimes prosecutions and increase the legal consequences of abuses. But it was not clear that it would have any practical effect on the conflict.

The United Nations observers are in the country as part of a faltering peace plan by the special envoy Kofi Annan, who has been trying for months to negotiate a solution to Syria’s crisis. Mr. Annan is scheduled to visit Moscow on Monday, seeking help from President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, the most significant of Syria’s dwindling list of international friends.

Another friend, Iran, offered on Sunday to invite Syrian government and opposition representatives for peace talks, Reuters said, citing a semiofficial Iranian news agency. But the opposition immediately dismissed the idea, saying it would not negotiate with the government until the violence stops in Syria.