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Syria denies UN claims of Tremseh massacre

Activists say 200 deaths one of the worst massacres since the conflict began in March 2011.

Syria tremseh massacreEnlarge
Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi speaks during a press conference in Damascus on July 15, 2012. Syria's regime denied its forces used tanks and helicopters in an assault on Tremseh, saying what happened in the central village was the result of clashes with rebels and not a "massacre." (LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)

Syria didn’t use heavy weapons and aircraft during Thursday’s attacks in Tremseh, an official said on Sunday, the embattled nation’s response to claims by UN special envoy Kofi Annan.

Activists called it one of the worst massacres since the conflict began in March 2011, and said as many as 200 residents died in the small village; cellphone video of mass graves surfaced as proof.

UN observers inspecting the carnage said they saw evidence of artillery fire, but a spokesman for Syria’s Foreign Ministry said just 37 rebels and two civilians died.

“The heaviest weapon used was an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade). What happened was not a massacre,” Jihad Makdissi said, according to Reuters. “They were clashes between security forces, whose duty is to defend civilians, and heavily armed forces that don’t believe in a political solution.”

Makdissi said rebels used the town of about 11,000 people in Hama as a base to launch other attacks.

UN observers near Tremseh said on Friday that they saw the President Bashar al-Assad’s army using heavy weaponry and attack helicopters, BBC reported

After shelling, pro-Syria militias entered the village and killed more people.

More from GlobalPost: Syria: UN observers head for village massacre site

The observers saw blood in homes, bullets, mortars and artillery shells, but couldn’t confirm civilians were the only targets.

Many of the dead were men who appeared to be armed rebels, reports said.

“A wide range of weapons were used, including artillery, mortars and small arms,” UN spokeswoman Sausan Ghosheh said, according to BBC.

The latest fighting led the International Committee of the Red Cross to declare the situation in Syria a civil war, The Associated Press reported.

The ICRC’s declaration means humanitarian laws now apply, giving combatants the right to use “appropriate force,” but civilian deaths or abuse could lead to charges of war crimes, the AP said.

Also Sunday, Russia announced that President Vladimir Putin and Annan are to meet Tuesday, and Iran said it is encouraging talks between opposition and government forces.

As many as 16,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict.

More from GlobalPost: Massacre indicates deliberate murder, Clinton says

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/syria/120715/syria-denies-un-claims-tremseh-massacre