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Syria Feature: Who Carried Out the Mass Killing in Haswiyeh?

Latest updates will be placed at the top. Click here to jump to the original article below.

1650 GMT: I've just finished a long conversation with ITV's Bill Neely, where we compared notes between his observations and BBC's Lyse Doucet's own reports.

Neely says that both reports seem similar. However, Neely has clarified many aspects of his report which I will summarize below:

Hasiyweh (here on the map) is a village primarily made of Sunnis. According to Neely, the river divides the village, half of which the rebels control and the other half of which the military controls. The rebels use the orchards and nearby homes to attack the Intelligence Headquarters to the east:

View Reported Massacres in Hama/Houla in a larger map

He says that the village has become host of refugees who have fled other parts of Homs, and it is a mix of people, including rebels.

Neely says that he talked to people away from the soldiers, and they made a compelling case. They said Jabhat al Nusra did this.

However, in another video used by Neely, a woman said she did not know who did this. That video, interestingly enough, has now been used by both Assad supporters and Syrian activists as evidence of what happened in Haswiyeh.

Neely points out that there is no hard proof either way. Men dressed in black, wearing a headband that says "Allahu Akbar," is hardly a positive identification. Jabhat al Nusra has not been seen, to our knowledge, wearing such garb, but it's possible. It's also possible that Al Nusra has been framed. Neely suggests that there are Syrian rebel groups who hate Al Nusra and may want to make them look bad. Others suggest that Lebanese men, perhaps from Hezbollah, could have just as easily attacked the village to frame Al Nusra. One thing is certain, however, there is more evidence of larger numbers of Hezbollah working in Homs than Jabhat al Nusra, though some Al Nusra sympathizers are certainly present. Still, despite the contradictory and compelling testimony of both sides, Neely maintains that there is no hard evidence as to who is really responsible - and we agree.

The video of Neely's film is viewable here:

Eyewitness report after Huwaisa deaths from ITV News on Vimeo.

There is an interesting twist to Neely's video report - the men who were reportedly captured by the soldiers had an AR-15 or M-16 rifle, an American rifle (though one that is readily available on the market). Such weapons have been very rarely used by Syrian rebels, are are not standard issue of the Syrian Army. Again this is circumstantial evidence, and inconclusive at that, but it is interesting that the men were captured with a weapon that is both rare and so iconically associated with the United States. If someone were framing rebels, rebels whom the regime claims are supported by foreign powers, this would be the weapon to plant.

Neely's work here is compelling. So is Doucet's. So are the detailed claims from the syrian opposition that run counter to some, but not all, of the reports carried by these reports from residents of the village (which is now heavily occupied).

We agree again. 24 hours after the first reporters have made it to the town, and there's still no hard evidence that gives us even a hint of the truth.

1452 GMT: The BBC has written up Doucet's observations, but there is a very important point that we didn't see in her public tweets - a resident, away from the soldiers, has pointed the finger at the regime for the crime:

Soldiers who escorted the team to the area said hundreds of men from a militant Islamist rebel group, the Nusra Front, committed the killings.

One woman told the BBC the same.

But out of earshot of the official Syrian minders, another woman said the army was present at the time and that some soldiers even apologised for the murders, saying others had acted without orders.

That testimony matches accusations on activist websites that this was the work of pro-government militia known as Shabiha.

We're trying to contact both Neely and Doucet for clarification of the two reports.

This is why Neely's work was so important yesterday (see my full explanation here). His report did not exclude the possibility that there was more to this story. Also, in my writing last night, I raised the possibility that the identity of the attackers may have been confused, depending on who saw them. An activist who claims to have spoken to residents who have fled the area (we haven't verified this claim) said that the attackers were Lebanese. It's possible that the attackers were meant to look like Jabhat al Nusra, a theory which would bridge the reports from both Neely and Doucet.

This is still speculation. However, if regime soldiers have always had control of the village (another claim coming from multiple sources) then how would Jabhat al Nusra infiltrate the village, conduct such a massacre, and still be able to leave?

Without further investigation it is still noteworthy that all the claims reported by Neely, and many of those reported by Doucet, still point the finger at Jabhat al Nusra. But Neely reports that all those testimonies were given in front of soldiers. Did those soldiers cherry-pick who was going to talk to Neely and Doucet, or did they intimidate the witnesses?

Neely has just given a quick response:

1435 GMT: The BBC's Lyse Doucet has reached Haswiyeh, and has the following updates:

This report is far more gruesome than what Neely said he had witnessed (we're asking him about this now), and suggests that house-to-house raids were conducted.

Below is the original article.

Three days ago rumours began circulating of a "massacre" in the villages of Haswiyeh, just north of Homs, as well as dozens killed in Houla to the west of the city. These claims came at the same time as confirmed reports of heavy shelling of Homs, as well as cities to the north such as Talbiseh and Al Rastan.

See Tuesday's initial coverage, which includes many links to videos and claimed eyewitness claims.

A problem was immediately apparent. The claims made by some activists included beheadings, knife attacks, and summary executions. But the evidence did not show any of this. Instead, it was obvious that the villages had been heavily bombed, likely by aircraft but possibly by tanks and artillery, and the reports of knife-wielding shabiha and bodies hanging in trees were exaggerated.

On Thursday this summary was posted on the "Homs Up-to-Date" Facebook page:

Reports emerging from Husweyeh massacre behold such intolerable pain of an extremely appalling massacre committed against 13 families according to eyewitnesses. The village is located near AlQusour district and is about 5 kilometers away from Homs city center [to the north of the city]. Husweyeh's families are well-known for being farmers; the village has a population of about 1,500 civilians only and recently had more families settling in from disaster-stricken areas and invaded districts, such as Deir Ba'lbeh district and else. The village includes Sunnis, Christians, and Alawties, but the massacre is proven to be purely driven by sectarianism since all the families massacred are Sunni families only....

On Tuesday, 15/1/2013, the regime's military security forces entered the village 12:00 p.m. [Syria time] and arbitrarily arrested a number of men, amongst them martyr Abdul Haseeb Deyab, Imam of Al Tayyar mosque in Husweyyeh village. At 1:00 p.m. [Syria time], some of the detainees got released. At 2:00 p.m. [Syria time], 2 buses {well-known by civilians for being used to drive Shabiha (thugs)}, 4 other security forces buses, and 2 armoured vehicles arrived to the area and parked near Al Boushi factory for ceramics.

The military security forces spread...

Afterwards, some young men were extrajudicially executed in these houses then burnt in one house, which is the house of Abu Mashhour Shehab Deyab. They then moved into Al Ghaloul orchards and executed all the men, women, and children their found there from Al Ghaloul family. Third station was Al Deyab farmlands, where they also executed the whole family and burnt their corpses. Their last station was the farmlands right beside Al Deyab farmlands, where they killed more than 17 members of Al Mahbani family there.

Few of the young men were able to escape as they climbed on trees and hid in orchards. But the regime's Shabiha (thugs) caught them, executed them and tied them to trees. Most of the eyewitnesses recounts said that the gold women were wearing was robbed after they were disgustingly humiliated whilst others were kidnapped/arrested and no one know anything about them nor about how many are they. House and commercial shops were looted too.

Up until now, 2:30 p.m, 105 martyrs have been documented from all these families executed.

The report also lists the names of many of the dead. Suspiciously, a video that claimed to show the burnt bodies of the victims has been "removed by the user".

Sensational reports continue to pour in, often from high-profile sources like Radio Sawa journalist Zaid Benjamin:

And the Telegraph:

Syrian opposition sources from Homs said loyalist militiamen backed by government troops swept through the hamlet of Haswiyeh just north of the city, torching houses and slashing victims to death with knives.

The Britain-based opposition group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said "whole families were executed", with one family losing up to 32 members, including women and children. The death count of the attack, which was said to have started on Tuesday, varied from 32 to more than 106. Youssef al-Homsi, an activist based in Homs, said at least 100 people were killed, including dozens of women and children, and sent The Associated Press a list of 100 names said to have been killed, including 15 women and 10 children.

Two glaring problems remain. The opposition Local Coordination Committees has yet to mention any massacre, and sufficient video evidence of a massacre has not surfaced.

On Thursday, Bill Neely of Britain's ITV made it to the area. He saw blood and some human remains, but he did not see the bodies to verify those numbers. Neely did speak to residents of the town who made such claims, and he concludes simply:

I cannot say for sure who did what to whom. But it's clear many people died in Homs. Dozens.

All seem agreed on that. The common figure was around 30. I even got the names of families who had been killed; members of the the Hamza family, the Khoulis and Ghalouls.

The local men I talked to were scared. They had been through something bad. Many had lost loved ones.

Then there is the question of responsibility. In his article, Neely cited residents who said opposition fighters or men in "black uniforms and...Islamist headbands" executed villagers, including women and children.

On Twitter, Neely also raises the possibility that the Islamist insurgency Jabhat al Nusra is responsible:

So what's really going on?

Much of Homs and the surrounding areas are in devastation and disorder after more than a year of shelling, bombing, and gunfire. Those who remain are often Syria's poorest and most helpless citizens, amid the fighters and militia of both the insurgency and the Assad military and supporters. Its villages and neighbourhoods are among the most ethnically- and religiously-divided ghettos in all of Syria. They have also been host to many massacres in the past. Fear, distrust, and tension grow deep.

All that fear and tension is fertiel ground for rumours. Reliable communications travel slower, as many are often afraid to take to the streets, especially when the bombs are falling or the gunshots ringing out.

What facts have travelled tell us that the last three days have been deadly, very deadly, but calling this a "massacre" elevates the deaths above what we have seen elsewhere in Syria, where events have also devastating over the last few days.

And then this admission --- Bill Neely's venture to the area points to who may have been involved in Tuesday's mass killing but it does not establish this with certainty. As is increasingly the case with the violence and murders, this has become a war where We Do Not Necessarily Know.

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