World Bulletin / News Desk
Syria denied on Sunday accusations by special envoy Kofi Annan that it used heavy weapons or helicopters in clashes in the village of Tremseh last week, saying his comments about the fighting, which activists called a massacre, were "rushed".
Jihad Makdissi, spokesman for Syria's Foreign Ministry, said security forces killed 37 fighters and two civilians in a campaign against the town in central Hama, from which the government said rebels were launching attacks on other areas.
Activists' estimates of the death toll ranges from 100 to 220, many of them whole families in the village of Tremseh, where United Nations monitors say there was heavy fighting on Thursday.
"Government forces did not use planes, or helicopters, or tanks or artillery. The heaviest weapon used was an RPG (rocket propelled grenade)," Makdissi told reporters at a news conference in Damascus.
"What happened was not a massacre ... what happened was a military operation. They were clashes between security forces, whose duty is to defend civilians, and heavily armed forces that don't believe in a political solution."
Syria has become mired in a bloody revolt against President Bashar al-Assad that is now in its seventeenth month. Some foreign officials now say the uprising that began as street protests has morphed into a civil war.
So far, video published by activists said to be from the small village has shown blood drenched and burned corpses of young men, who could have been rebel fighters.
"Defence, not attack"
Special envoy Annan, who is leading efforts to implement a peace initiative in Syria, said on Friday that Syria had violated its commitments to U.N.-backed peace efforts.
"I am shocked and appalled by news coming out of the village of Tremseh, near Hama, of intense fighting, significant casualties, and the confirmed use of heavy weaponry such as artillery, tanks and helicopters," he said in a statement.
"This is in violation of the government's undertaking to cease the use of heavy weapons in population centres and its commitment to the six-point plan."
Makdissi rejected Annan's accusations, which were repeated in a letter sent to Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem
"The least that can be said about this letter about what happened in Tremseh is that it did not rely on facts. As diplomatically as possible, we say that this letter was very rushed," the spokesman said.
Makdissi said statements on Saturday from a group of United Nations observers sent to Tremseh confirmed Syria's version of events. The group said the violence appeared to be attacks targeting rebels and opposition activists.
But their report also said artillery and mortars were used, and the head of the monitoring mission said a day earlier that monitors in the province had reported use of helicopters and indiscriminate fire.
Makdissi said accusations of a fierce attack were implausible given the tiny size of the village.
"Everything that has been said on the use of heavy weapons in an assault on a village no bigger than 1 km squared is completely untrue," he said, denying that villagers were targeted. "We are in a state of self-defence, not a state of attack."