Syrian security forces this week killed more than 200 people on the eve of a visit by international observers monitoring Syria’s compliance with an Arab League peace plan, according to eyewitnesses, activists and opposition sources.
Most of the deaths, which included women and children, occurred in the western province of Homs, and the cities of Idlib in the northwest and Jabal Zawiyeh near the border with Turkey, the various sources said Wednesday in phone and video-conferencing interviews.
Syrian troops rounded up and shot civilians, and looted and destroyed houses, in an apparent hunt for army defectors, the sources told The Washington Times.
“We are facing a death machine,” said Abu Rami, a resident of Homs. “This regime is showing no mercy toward us.”
He said Syrian troops had killed dozens of deserters. At least 50 people have been killed in Homs.
The latest bloodshed would make this week the deadliest in an uprising that the United Nations estimates has claimed more than 5,000 lives since it erupted in March.
The opposition Syrian National Council said the massacre included the beheading of a Muslim cleric in the village of Kafar Awaid.
“What is happening in Jabal Zawiyeh is a genocide,” Mousab Azzawi, chief coordinator with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said in a phone interview from London.
The Syrian government has imposed restrictions on journalists that make it difficult to independently verify eyewitness accounts.
However, in a sharply worded statement Wednesday, the White House said the reports of violence are credible.
Troops loyal to President Bashar Assad prevented ambulances from carrying the wounded to hospitals, and in the city of Aleppo, those who made it to hospital had been arrested, the various sources said.
The crackdown was carried out on the eve of a visit by Arab League monitors to Syria on Thursday to ensure the regime’s implementation of its peace plan.
Activists said that sending monitors now would be an exercise in futility.
“Ten or 20 observers will not stop the killing. They must not waste time with these bureaucratic exercises and instead say to the regime: ‘Stop this killing now,’ ” said Mr. Azzawi.
The Syrian National Council called for emergency meetings of the Arab League to condemn the massacre and the U.N. Security Council to declare areas under attack as “safe zones.”
The Syrian government published a new law this week that mandates the death penalty for anyone distributing weapons for the purpose of committing terrorist acts, according to the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency.
Army deserters have taken shelter in Homs and Jabal Zawiyeh, where pro-Assad forces have used air power to strike targets.
However, residents say they have not supplied arms to the men, who are carrying their own light weapons and are no match for the pro-Assad army.
The defectors have formed a Free Syria Army, but so far it has largely been involved in protecting unarmed protesters from the government crackdown.
Residents are facing an acute shortage of fuel, heating oil and medical supplies critical during the bitter winter months.
“The regime is applying collective punishment,” said Mr. Azzawi.
The White House said in a statement that it is deeply disturbed by the reports of violence and added that the Assad regime “does not deserve to rule Syria.”
It called for a full withdrawal of security forces, the release of political prisoners, and unfettered access by monitors and international media to all parts of Syria.
In Cairo on Monday, Syria signed the Arab League peace initiative allowing observers into the country. The plan calls on the Assad regime to halt its crackdown, start talks with the opposition, withdraw forces from city streets and allow access to human rights workers and journalists.
“The words of the Assad regime have no credibility when they continue to be followed by outrageous and deplorable actions,” the White House said.
In remarks directed at Russia and China, the White House urged Syria[‘]s “few remaining supporters in the international community” to warn the regime in Damascus of serious consequences if the Arab League peace plan is not fully implemented.