Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid Muallem addresses a press conference in Damascus
Graphic scenes of grief and death in a Syrian village bore witness on Friday to a massacre President Bashar al-Assad's opponents say was the work of his troops and militia allies, drawing words of outrage from the outside world.
There was "indisputable evidence that the regime deliberately murdered innocent civilians," said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, demanding access for U.N. observers who on Thursday had been spectators to hours of bombing and gunfire, but were kept out of the village by Syrian troops, reports Reuters.
Yet with much unclear about the precise events at Tremseh - where activists put the death toll anywhere between over 100 and more than twice that number - and with world powers as divided as ever, there was little response beyond the rhetorical.
"I condemn, in the strongest possible terms, the indiscriminate use of heavy artillery and shelling of populated areas, including by firing from helicopters," United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, adding that it cast "serious doubt" on Assad's recent commitment to Ban's envoy's peace plan.
The U.N. special envoy, Kofi Annan, condemned "atrocities", as video evidence of casualties from Thursday's attack on the village in rebellious Hama province emerged on the Web.
The White House said such violence cost Assad the legitimacy to remain as leader. Clinton said: "Those who committed these atrocities will be identified and held accountable."
Annan was "shocked and appalled" at "intense fighting, significant casualties, and the confirmed use of heavy weaponry such as artillery, tanks and helicopters" in the village.
Calling it a "grim reminder" that U.N. resolutions calling for peace were being flouted, he wrote to the United Nations Security Council urging it to penalise Syria for failing to comply. But in the Council, Western powers still face objections from Russia and China to their efforts to push Assad from power.
Said Clinton: "History will judge this Council. Its members must ask themselves whether continuing to allow the Assad regime to commit unspeakable violence against its own people is the legacy they want to leave."
A local activist named Ahmed told Reuters there were 60 bodies at the mosque, of whom 20 were identified: "There are more bodies in the fields, bodies in the rivers and in houses."
There was no independent account of the battle, which the government described as a massacre by "terrorist groups".
Some opposition activists said over 220 people died when Tremseh was bombarded by helicopter gunships and tanks, then stormed by men from neighbouring villages in what they portrayed as a sectarian attack on Sunnis by Assad's fellow Alawites.
Others said the death toll in Thursday's attack may have been less but was certainly over 100, which would make Tremseh one of the worst atrocities of the 17-month revolt against Assad and the 42-year-old family dynasty established by his father.
Syrian state television said there was fighting in Tremseh and accused "armed terrorist groups" of committing a massacre there, but gave no death toll. The rebel forces also said there was a battle and the U.N. military representative confirmed it.