ISTANBUL, Turkey — U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan, the Obama administration and the Syrian opposition on Friday denounced President Bashar Assad after a massive military assault against a village involving tanks, artillery and helicopters a day earlier caused the deaths of possibly scores of civilians.
Russia, Syria's principal international backer, also condemned the assault and called for an investigation, but it stopped short of ascribing blame.
Outraged at the purported scope of the attack — possibly the single deadliest event yet in the 16-month-old revolt — Syrian revolutionaries took to Facebook and other social media to criticize Annan's observer mission and demand his removal from the peace efforts.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a strongly worded condemnation of the killings in and around the village of Tremseh on Thursday and said the violence should prompt the U.N. Security Council to "put its full weight behind the Annan plan for an immediate cease-fire and a political transition."
"History will judge this council," Clinton continued, in an implicit warning to Russia and China, which have blocked action against Assad at the Security Council. "Its members must ask themselves whether continuing to allow the Assad regime to commit unspeakable violence against its own people is the legacy they want to leave."
People in Tremseh, a predominantly Sunni village near the city of Hama, initially reported that more than 200 people were killed, many of them while fleeing the assault by tanks, artillery, infantry and the pro-Assad shabiha militia, the opposition Syrian National Council said. On Friday, locals reportedly had scaled back the estimate, with one witness confirming 74 dead to the Associated Press and another providing 103 names of alleged victims.
Foreign reporters are not free to move about in Syria, and the unarmed U.N. observers have ceased on-site monitoring following threats to their safety, so the number of victims in the Tremseh incident could not be verified.
SANA, the Syrian state news service, offered a starkly different version of events, reporting that Tremseh was overrun by "terrorists" — the government's catch-all term for participants in the uprising — and suffered heinous killings and attacks before the "competent security units" arrived at the request of the besieged villagers.
The head of the U.N. military observer mission in Syria said his observers watched the Syrian military using mechanized units, shelling and helicopters in the assault against Tremseh. It came just three days after Assad sat down with Annan and proposed naming a negotiator for talks with the opposition to establish a transitional government.
That gesture now appears to have been a ruse, evoking strong words from the even-tempered Annan and the fury of the Syrian opposition.
Annan said he was "shocked and appalled" by the news of intense fighting, significant casualties and the confirmed use of heavy weapons including artillery, tanks and helicopters. "I condemn these atrocities in the strongest possible terms," Annan said.