More than 200 Syrians were massacred in a village in the Hama region, opposition activists said Friday, in what could prove to be the worst single incident of violence in 16 months of conflict.
The central Syrian farming village of Tremseh was bombarded by helicopter gunships and tanks and then stormed by militiamen who carried out execution-style killings, activists said.
Activists said the incident took place on Thursday – the eve of the latest U.N. Security Council negotiations on a new resolution on Syria. The United States and its allies said it showed the need for tough action, but Russia ruled out accepting the latest draft.
Purported footage of Thursday's incident shows a government tank shelling opposition fighters in Tremseh, according to a report by NBC News' British partner ITV News.
Meanwhile, a Wall Street Journal report on Friday quoted U.S. officials saying Syria has started to move part of its chemical weapons arsenal out of storage facilities.
The country's undeclared stockpiles of sarin nerve agent, mustard gas and cyanide have long worried U.S. officials and their allies in the region, the report said.
Video footage, which activists said showed the bodies of 15 of the Tremseh victims, was posted online Friday by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. (Warning: Readers may find the video disturbing.)
Machine guns operated by motorcycle brakes? Get a glimpse at the rebels fighting against Assad's forces in Syria's mountainous Jabal al-Zawiya area.
Much remains unclear about the massacre. The Observatory said it had reports of more than 150 killed in Tremseh, though it had collected only 30 names of the victims. Another group, the Local Coordination Committees, said the dead numbered more than 200.
The Revolution Leadership Council of Hama told Reuters that the village was subjected to a barrage of heavy weapons fire before pro-government Alawite militiamen swept in and killed victims one by one. Some civilians were killed while trying to flee.
"More than 220 people fell today in Tremseh. They died from bombardment by tanks and helicopters, artillery shelling and summary executions," the regional opposition group said in a statement to Reuters on Thursday evening.
Syrian state television said three security personnel had been killed in fighting in Tremseh and accused "armed terrorist groups" of committing a massacre there.
Fadi Sameh, an opposition activist from Tremseh, said he had left the town before the reported killing spree but was in touch with residents. "It appears that Alawite militiamen from surrounding villages descended on Tremseh after its rebel defenders pulled out, and started killing the people. Whole houses have been destroyed and burned from the shelling.
Bodies in rivers
Sameh added: "Every family in the town seems to have members killed. We have names of men, women and children from countless families." He said many of the bodies were taken to a local mosque.
Ahmed, another local activist, told Reuters: "So far, we have 20 victims recorded with names and 60 bodies at a mosque. There are more bodies in the fields, bodies in the rivers and in houses. ... People were trying to flee from the time the shelling started and whole families were killed trying to escape."
A tweet from U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said: "Reports of Traymseh massacre are nightmarish - dramatically illustrate the need for binding UNSC measures on Syria."
Seventy-eight people were shot or stabbed or burned alive in the village of Mazraat al-Qubeir, a Sunni hamlet, by fighters of Assad's Alawite sect on June 6, and 108 men, women and children were massacred in the town of Houla on May 25.
Most of Assad's political and military establishment are minority Alawites, who form a branch of Shiite Islam. The revolt and the fighters behind it, and the street protesters who launched the revolt in March 2011, are mostly Sunni Muslims.
While the insurgents have been unable to match the Syrian army's firepower, they have established footholds in towns, cities and villages across Syria, often prompting Assad's forces to respond fiercely with helicopter gunships and artillery.
Earlier Thursday, the first ambassador to abandon Assad called on the army to "turn your guns on the criminals" of the government as troops backed by tanks swarmed into a suburb of Damascus on Thursday to flush out rebels.
Nawaf al-Fares, a Sunni Muslim who has close ties to the security services, was Syria's ambassador to its neighbor Iraq, one of its few friends in the region.
Coming just days after the desertion of Manaf Tlas, a Sunni brigadier general in the elite Republican Guard who grew up with the president, al-Fares' defection gave the anti-Assad uprising one of its biggest political lifts.
But Assad's strongest strategic ally, Russia, stuck by him Thursday with a clear warning to his Western and Arab enemies that it would not even consider calls for a tough new resolution by the U.N. Security Council in New York.
Cousins who defected from the army fled to a valley along with more than 100 other men and boys. For the first few hours they appeared to be safe, until Syrian forces found them. NBC's Richard Engel reports.
Britain circulated a draft on Wednesday, backed by the United States, France and Germany, that would make compliance with a transition plan drafted by international envoy Kofi Annan enforceable under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter.
That would allow the council to authorize actions ranging from diplomatic and economic sanctions to military intervention.
Assad's opponents say 13,000 armed and unarmed opponents of Assad, and 4,300 members of security forces loyal to Damascus, have been killed since the uprising began.
Russia and China, both veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, have for months blocked attempts to isolate and push out Assad, endorsing his argument that he is defending Syria against armed groups bent on ousting him with the backing of the West and allied Sunni Gulf Arab monarchies.
More world news from msnbc.com and NBC News:
- Briton charged with fraud over bomb detectors
- China offers bounty for piranhas, dead or alive
- Ex-pats rush to aid Syrian students abroad
- Avalanche kills at least 9 in French Alps
- North Korea mystery woman: A possible new first lady?
Copyright 2013 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.