After government assault, villagers are killed in house-to-house raids. But rebels are gaining ground.
NEAR HAMA, SYRIA - A massacre that killed as many as 80 people in Qubeir may have started with a warning that government sympathizers issued to the village's residents against harboring known anti-government activists.
A resident of Qubeir who survived the massacre said Friday that the attack took place shortly after an activist wanted by the government, known as Abu Hassan, went to Qubeir. When an army unit based nearby was notified of his presence, it began to shell the village and then sent in six tanks. Local militia killed the villagers with gunfire, sticks and knives.
"There had been threats against the village before not to harbor people who are wanted," said the resident, who used the pseudonym Laith al-Hamway for fear of retaliation from the Syrian forces.
The deaths at Qubeir, which is near the city of Hama, are the latest in what is becoming a pattern of mass killings that have followed government assaults. More than 80 women and children were shot or hacked to death in May in the village of Houla in an attack that bore a striking similarity to what happened at Qubeir -- government shelling, followed by house-to-house searches and killings.
The massacres mark a grisly turn in Syria's violence, which defies efforts by the United Nation's special envoy, Kofi Annan, to mediate a cease-fire. Casualties overall have dropped since Annan's peace plan went into effect April 12. But that progress is hardly visible against the backdrop of the massacres, which also have obscured stepped-up attacks on government troops by what are clearly better armed and financed rebel forces.
The rebels now control a widening swath of territory in north and central Syria. They use it as a base for storing and manufacturing weapons and for launching attacks against government soldiers in what previously had been relatively peaceful parts of the country. In May, at least 404 government soldiers and police officers were killed in combat with the rebels, according to burial notices published by the Syrian government news agency, SANA, and June appears headed to another high total.
Rebel units operating out of safe havens here show none of the desperation for weapons and ammunition that plagued them as recently as February. One unit commander reported that he recently received $20,000 in cash from a Free Syrian Army official in Turkey and that more money was expected. Another unit on Friday proudly displayed six new Belgian FAL assault rifles that it had received, along with ammunition -- gifts, the rebels said, from Saudi Arabia, which has pledged both money and weapons to the forces fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad.