Activists: 220 killed in latest Syria massacre

This image taken from a video posted online by Syrian opposition activists shows a man wounded in an alleged government assault on the city of Tremseh, in Hama province, July 12, 2012. Neither the content of the video, nor the events on the ground in Tremseh, could be independently verified.
Updated at 3:00 a.m. Eastern.

(CBS/AP) BEIRUT - Syrian activists reported a new massacre late Thursday in the central Hama province, claiming regime forces had killed more than 200 people in shelling followed by ground attacks in the central Hama province.

The details of the incident have been impossible to confirm, given the Syrian government's ban on independent journalism, and while President Bashar Assad's regime acknowledged violence in the Tremseh area of Hama, it blamed the deaths on "terrorist" groups.

A member of the Local Coordination Committees opposition group told CBS News late Thursday that Syrian army forces surrounded Tremseh in the morning and pounded the city with shelling and fire from aircraft. It began, according to the LCC, as a search for defected soldiers who had joined the rebel Free Syrian Army.

The LCC and other groups claim that, after the initial bombardment, members of the government-backed "shabiha" militias stormed the city and executed dozens more. The LCC source who spoke to CBS News put the death toll at 220 - and said many of the bodies seen at the local mosque were those of army defectors who seemed to have been summarily executed.

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The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based opposition group, said it was aware of up to 100 killed from its sources on the ground, but the group had only been able to confirm the names of 30 people as of Thursday evening.

The accounts given by the opposition groups echoed at least two previous reported massacres. In the town of Houla, 108 people were allegedly killed in a massacre at the end of May that the U.N. said was at least partially to blame on shabiha militiamen, and which international peace envoy Kofi Annan predicted would be a "tipping point" in the conflict.

About two weeks after the Hama incident, however, an attack which opposition figures say followed the exact same pattern - shelling and bombardment followed by door-to-door executions by the shabiha - was seen in the nearby village of Qubeir. Activists say 78 people were killed in total. The government, again, blamed "terrorist groups".

Opposition activists say more than 17,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011.

The dictator has come under increasing pressure from the international community as the bloodshed continues, but as the conflict spirals further into a civil war, hopes for a peaceful transition to an interim or caretaker government are dimming.

The latest report of violence came in the wake of the highest-level defection yet from Assad's regime - his ambassador to Iraq.

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Defections from the Syrian regime have stirred hopes in the West Assad's inner circle will start abandoning him in greater numbers, hastening his downfall.

But the tightly protected regime has largely held together over the course of the 16-month-old uprising, driven by a mixture of fear and loyalty.

Nawaf al-Fares
A still from a Youtube video shows Nawaf al-Fares announcing his defection from Syrian President Bashar Assad's government.

The latest official to flee, Ambassador Nawaf Fares, announced that he was joining the revolution, asserting Thursday that only force will drive Assad from power.

"There is no road map ever with Bashar Assad, because any plan, any statement that is agreed on internationally he delays on and ignores," Fares told the Al-Jazeera satellite channel. "There is no way that he can be pushed from power without force, and the Syrian people realize this."

Syria's Foreign Ministry denounced Fares, saying he should face "legal and disciplinary accountability."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell hailed what he called the "first major diplomatic defection," adding: "We think this a wider sign that the regime is feeling the pressure. The pressure is up and the regime is really starting to fall apart."

Fares is the second prominent Syrian to break with the regime in less than a week. Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, an Assad confidant and son of a former defense minister, defected last week, but has not spoken publicly.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Tlass has been in contact with the Syrian opposition. He would not comment on reports that Tlass was in Paris.

"I know that there is some closeness between the opposition and the general... Contact has been made," Fabius told journalists in Paris.

Assad's regime has suffered a steady stream of low-level army defectors, who have joined a group of dissidents known as the Free Syrian Army, now numbering in the tens of thousands. There have been several high-level defections in the past - including a Syrian fighter pilot who flew his plane to neighboring Jordan during a training mission in June in a brazen move.

Although the defections are notable, Assad's regime has remained remarkably airtight, particularly compared with the hemorrhaging of Moammar Gadhafi's inner circle in Libya in 2011.