DAMASCUS, Syria — Syria on Sunday denied U.N. claims that government forces used heavy weapons during a military operation that left scores dead and brought immediate international condemnation, while the International Committee of the Red Cross said it now considers the conflict in the country a civil war.
Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said the violence Thursday was not a massacre — as activists and many foreign leaders have asserted — but a military operation targeting armed fighters who had taken control of the village of Tremseh.
“What happened wasn’t an attack on civilians,” Mr. Makdissi told reporters in Damascus. He said 37 gunmen and two civilians were killed — a far lower death toll than the one claimed by anti-regime activists, some of whom said more than 100 people were killed.
“What has been said about the use of heavy weapons is baseless,” Mr. Makdissi added.
However, the United Nations has already implicated Mr. Assad’s forces in the assault. The head of the U.N. observer mission said Friday that monitors stationed near Tremseh saw the army using heavy weaponry and attack helicopters.
The Geneva-based group’s assessment is an important reference that helps parties in a conflict determine how much and what type of force they can or cannot use.
ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said Sunday that humanitarian law now applies wherever hostilities are taking place in Syria, where fighting has spread beyond the hotspots of Idlib, Homs and Hama. International humanitarian law grants parties to a conflict the right to use appropriate force to achieve their aims, but attacks on civilians and abuse or killing of detainees can constitute war crimes.
On Saturday, U.N. observers investigating the killings in Tremseh found pools of blood in homes and spent bullets, mortars and artillery shells, adding details to the emerging picture of what anti-regime activists have called one of the deadliest events of Syria’s uprising. The observers were expected to return to the village Sunday.
Dozens of people have already been buried in a mass grave, and activists are still struggling to determine the total number of people killed in what they say was a bombardment by government tanks and helicopters on Thursday.
Some of the emerging details suggested that, rather than the outright shelling of civilians that the opposition has depicted, the violence in Tremseh may have been a lopsided fight between the army pursuing the opposition and activists and locals trying to defend the village. Nearly all of the dead are men, including dozens of armed rebels. The U.N. observers said the assault appeared to target specific homes of army defectors or opposition figures.
Running tolls ranged from around 100 to 152, including dozens of bodies buried in neighboring villages or burned beyond recognition. The activists expected the number to rise since hundreds of residents remain unaccounted for, and locals believe bodies remained in nearby fields or were dumped into the Orontes River.
The Tremseh violence was the latest in a string of bloody attacks in the now 16-month-old uprising against Mr. Assad. Activists say more than 17,000 people have been killed.