BEIRUT (Reuters) - U.N. monitors tried on Thursday to reach a village where activists say Syrian troops and militiamen loyal to President Bashar al-Assad massacred at least 78 villagers, hours before a divided U.N. Security Council discusses Syria.
If confirmed, the killings at Mazraat al-Qubeir, near Hama, will pile pressure on world powers to act, but they have been paralysed by divisions pitting Western and most Arab states against Assad’s defenders in Russia, China and Iran.
U.N. monitors based in Hama set out for Mazraat al-Qubeir but activists said an army checkpoint had turned them back. “We have despatched a patrol which is trying to get access there,” said Sausan Ghosheh, a spokeswoman for the U.N. observers.
Several activists told Reuters that up to 40 women and children were among the dead when the village in central Syria was shelled on Wednesday before fighters moved in and shot and stabbed dozens of people to death.
Their descriptions echoed accounts of a massacre of 108 civilians at Houla on May 25, which was investigated by U.N. monitors and which the chief U.N. peacekeeper said was probably committed by Syrian troops and loyalist “shabbiha” militia.
A Syrian official in Hama denied the “completely false” reports from Mazraat al-Qubeir, telling the state news agency residents had asked security forces to intervene after a “terrorist group committed ... a monstrous crime”, killing nine women and children.
Syrian authorities have also denied responsibility for the Houla killings, blaming foreign-backed Islamist militants.
Footage which activists said was taken in Mazraat al-Qubeir showed the bodies of at least a dozen women and children, wrapped in colourful blankets or white burial shrouds, as well as charred remains of burnt corpses.
“These are the children of the Mazraat al-Qubeir massacre ... Look, you Arabs and Muslims, is this a terrorist?” asks the cameraman, focusing on a dead infant’s face. “This woman was a shepherd, and this was a schoolgirl.”
Shabbiha, drawn mostly from Assad’s minority Alawite sect that is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, have been blamed for the killings of civilians from the Sunni Muslim majority. That has raised fears of an Iraq-style sectarian bloodbath and worsened tensions between Shi’ite Iran and mainly Sunni-led Arab states.
The main opposition Syrian National Council responded to reports of the new massacre by calling for stepped-up military assaults on Assad’s forces.
U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan declared a ceasefire in Syria on April 12 as part of a six-point peace plan which won wide international support, but failed to halt the bloodshed.
Annan, a former U.N. secretary-general, is to brief the Security Council later on Thursday in New York.
Activists, including the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights based in Britain, called for an immediate investigation by the 300-strong U.N. mission that was supposed to verify Annan’s ceasefire but is instead monitoring the violence.
“They should not give the excuse that their mission is only to observe the ceasefire, because many massacres have been committed during their presence in Syria,” the Observatory said.
Events in Syria’s 15-month-old uprising are difficult to verify due to tight state curbs on international media access.
A Hama-based activist using the name Abu Ghazi, citing survivors in Mazraat al-Qubeir, said nine Syrian army T-72 tanks had surrounded the hamlet of 20 houses northwest of Hama at 2 p.m. (1100 GMT) and started bombarding it.
An hour later the tanks drove in, accompanied by plain-clothes fighters carrying guns, knives and heavy sticks, he said, who started killing men, women and children.
He listed more than 50 names of victims, many from a single family called al-Yateem, but said some bodies could not be identified because they were so badly burned. The bodies of between 25 and 30 men were taken away by the killers, he said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said events in Syria were “appalling” and that if a massacre in Mazraat al-Qubeir was confirmed world powers would have to do “much more to isolate Syria ...and demonstrate that the whole world wants to see a transition from this illegitimate regime”.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said before leaving for Lebanon, where tensions over neighbouring Syria have already spilled into deadly violence, that the Syrian conflict “threatens to envelop the region”.
U.N. diplomats said they expected Annan to present the Security Council with a new proposal to rescue his failing peace plan - a “contact group” of world and regional powers.
Rebel groups in Syria say they are no longer bound by Annan’s ceasefire and want foreign weapons and other support.
Western leaders, wary of new military engagements in the Muslim world, have offered sympathy but show no appetite for taking on Assad’s military, supplied by Russia and Iran.
In Washington on Wednesday, the United States and Saudi Arabia, among dozens of mostly Western and Arab states in the “Friends of Syria” group, urged further sanctions on Syria, such as an arms embargo, travel bans and tougher financial penalties.
Separately, representatives of 15 countries and the European Union agreed in Istanbul on Wednesday to convene a “coordination group” to provide unspecified support to the opposition.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was among the participants who discussed what a Turkish statement called “additional steps” including coordination on a transition to a “democratic, post-Assad Syria”. It said the group would be represented at a meeting of Syrian rebels in Istanbul next week.
Clinton told the group that transition in Syria must include a representative interim government to pave the way for a full transfer of power in free and fair elections.
Annan hopes his new idea, for a contact group that would bring together world powers and regional players such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Iran, can prevent a collapse of his plan for a truce and a political solution, U.N. diplomats said.
Annan sees the forum as a way to break a deadlock among the five permanent members of the Security Council, where Russia and China have twice vetoed resolutions critical of Syria that were backed by the United States, Britain and France.
It would seek to map out a political transition under which Assad would leave office ahead of free elections, envoys said.
The underlying idea was to get Russia, which has repeatedly said it is not protecting Assad, but has given no sign it is ready to abandon him, to support such a transition, they said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday proposed an international meeting on Syria that would include the prime candidates for Annan’s proposed contact group, including Iran.
Clinton, however, reacted coolly to that idea, accusing Iran of “stage-managing” Syria’s repression of its opponents in which the United Nations says over 10,000 people have been killed.
Leaders of a bloc grouping China, Russia and Central Asian states called on Thursday for dialogue to resolve the Syria conflict, rather than any firmer action by the Security Council.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation rejected military interference, “enforced handover of power” and unilateral sanctions, favouring a “broad nationwide dialogue, based on independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty of Syria.”
Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Beirut, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations, Arshad Mohammed in Istanbul and Balazs Koranyi, Gleb Bryanski and Chris Buckley; Editing by Alistair Lyon