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Syria: UN finds 'pools of blood'

Up to 200 may have died in mismatched battle between Assad's troops and rebels

UN observers investigating a reported mass killing in a Syrian village yesterday found pools of blood in homes and spent bullets, mortars and artillery shells.

Dozens of people have already been buried in a mass grave, and activists are still struggling to determine the total number killed in what they say was a violent bombardment by government tanks and helicopters on the village of Tremseh. It was reported that up to 200 may have been killed in the attack on Thursday.

Some of the emerging details suggested that, rather than the outright bombing 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 the dead are men, including dozens of armed rebels. The UN observers said the assault appeared to target specific homes of army defectors or opposition figures.

Running tolls ranged from 103 to 152, including dozens of bodies buried in neighbouring 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 thrown into the Orontes River. The violence appeared to be one of the bloodiest events in the 16-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, in which activists say more than 17,000 people have been killed so far.

Yesterday, an 11-vehicle team of UN observers entered Tremseh, north-west of the city of Hama.

Based on its investigation, Sausan Ghosheh, spokeswoman for the UN Supervision Mission in Syria, said in a statement: "The attack on Tremseh appeared targeted at specific groups and houses, mainly of army defectors and activists. There were pools of blood and blood spatters in rooms of several homes together with bullet cases. The UN team also observed a burned school and damaged houses."

Ms Ghosheh added that the team also found evidence of artillery shells and mortars, which only government troops have, as well as assault rifles, the staple of Syria's rebels. The investigators are set to return to the village today.

Independent verification of the events is nearly impossible in Syria, which bars most media from working in the country. The observers are in Syria as part of an all-but-mordant peace plan by UN special envoy Kofi Annan.

The Britain-based opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 62 people were killed across Syria in new violence yesterday, including at least 14 government soldiers.

So far, it remains unknown why the government launched a large offensive against Tremseh. The Syrian government said the killings were carried out by armed gangs and terrorists, its shorthand for the anti-regime opposition. But the UN has already implicated President Assad's forces in the assault. The head of the UN observer mission said on Friday that monitors stationed near Tremseh saw the army using heavy weaponry and attack helicopters.