Crammed into the Tremseh village mosque, women and children wailed prayers over row after row of corpses yesterday before the bodies were carried outside, packed into mass graves and buried. Overwhelmed by the scale of the slaughter, the tiny village about 25km outside the city of Hama had run out of traditional white burial shrouds, instead using curtains and tablecloths to wrap the dead.
Videos posted online showed scores of bodies lined up in the mosque. Some purported victims were charred black by fire, another appeared to have had his throat slashed.
What transpired is hazy but, if estimates of as many as 220 victims are confirmed, it would make the massacre that unfolded in this sheep-farming village on the banks of the Orontes River and home to just 9,000 residents the bloodiest atrocity committed by the Syrian regime yet.
Though the death toll may end up overshadowing the 108 killed in the Houla massacre, women and children in Tremseh seem to have escaped largely unharmed. A list of 103 victims confirmed dead by activists and seen by The Independent yesterday included no female names. The UN Arab-League envoy Kofi Annan said he was "shocked and appalled" by the reports of mass killings as the grim details began to emerge on the eve of a crucial UN vote on a resolution to bring an end to the bloodshed. The British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who is pushing for a Chapter 7 resolution at the Security Council which would open the door for military intervention, called for "decisive diplomatic action".
The Syrian government said that 50 people had been killed as troops fought with "terrorists" in an operation which saw large caches of weapons seized.
According to activists, the attack began at dawn on Thursday, when a convoy of 25 military trucks carrying troops, accompanied by three armoured vehicles and flatbeds with heavy artillery, were spotted trundling through the nearby town of Murhada, taking the road west towards the village. Tremseh was surrounded, its electricity cut off and mobile networks jammed to be sure residents had no way of broadcasting news of the massacre that was about to take place.
The army has been engaged in a fierce offensive in the Hama countryside for weeks and many villagers are said to have fled to Tremseh, a Sunni community staunchly against the regime. Colonel Qassim Saadeddine, of the Joint Command of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), said those families included those of FSA fighters – perhaps one of the reasons the village was targeted so brutally. Others said around 30 defected soldiers lived in the village.
When the shelling began, activists say it was precise. The home of the village's only two doctors were targeted, as were those of defected soldiers. Helicopters picked off those trying to flee. "Some of the wounded gathered in the school, but then that was attacked too," said local activist Manhal.
A team of observers stationed about five kilometres away confirmed the use of heavy weaponry and helicopters in the area by regime troops. After the initial assault, pro-government militias, known as Shabiha, backed by the army, were said to have moved in, terrorising residents as they detained some men and executed others with knives or at gunpoint.
Around 35 FSA fighters tried to fend them off, according to Col Saadeddine, but, outnumbered and outgunned, soon stood down. Abu Adnan, another activist in the area, said the FSA attacked a checkpoint in an attempt to allow civilians an escape route, but failed. "It's unimaginable what's happened there," said one Hama resident whose sister fled from the village with her three children.
"When she arrived for the first few hours she was so afraid and traumatised," he said. "Her children still can barely speak and her husband was arrested by soldiers during the attack."
The stories she reported back were brutal. Yesterday morning, when she visited a neighbour's house destroyed by fire, the air was thick with the smell of burning flesh and inside were two charred corpses. She believes they were locked in and burnt alive.
A local doctor Munsef al-Naji who was found treating two wounded men was dragged outside and shot in the head. "The villagers are still worried that the Shabiha will return," the woman's brother continued. "At the moment we are still desperately trying to get people out. The situation is dire."