United Nations monitors said they were blocked by Syria’s army as they sought to reach a village in Hama province to verify reports of a massacre in which the opposition says at least 78 people were killed.
The UN observers, part of about 300 unarmed military observers charged with overseeing a cease-fire plan, were halted at Syrian checkpoints and some were turned back, General Robert Mood, head of the mission, said in an e-mailed statement. Some of the monitors were also stopped by civilians, and told by residents that the village would not be safe for them, he said. Syrian state television denied that the monitors were blocked, saying a group of them have arrived in the village.
More than half of those killed in the village of Qubair were women and children, with some dying during army shelling while others were burned or stabbed by pro-government shabiha militiamen who arrived an hour later, the opposition Syrian National Council said in a statement on Facebook.
If confirmed, the massacre would be the second in less than two weeks. On May 25, 108 people, including 49 children, were killed in Houla in one of the worst atrocities in the 15-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s government. The U.S., its Western allies and other countries, such as Turkey, expelled Syrian diplomats after the massacre, leading Syria to kick out the envoys of those states.
The reports emerged hours before UN envoy Kofi Annan was due to address the General Assembly about ways to revive his cease-fire plan, which has failed to end the bloodshed in Syria, or seek alternative policies.
Syria’s state-run news agency SANA said reports of a new massacre by security forces were “baseless.” It said “terrorists” killed nine women and children on a farm yesterday, and residents asked for government protection. When government forces arrived at the scene, they clashed with the perpetrators, killing some of them, SANA said.
Ayham Kamel, a Middle East analyst with Eurasia Group, which monitors political risk, said that the U.S. and allies are running out of policy alternatives.
“In terms of punitive tools, we’ve reached a stage where the options are rather limited,” Kamel said in an interview from London. “We have reached a state in the conflict where there’s both internal and external recognition that the country, if it hasn’t already entered, is very close to a civil war.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today in Istanbul that Assad seems to have “doubled down on violence,” calling the latest reported massacre “simply unconscionable.”
Russia “categorically” condemned the killings, Alexander Lukashevich, the country’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in Moscow today.
Russia, which along with China has protected the Assad government against tougher UN sanctions, is seeking to enlist Iran, Syria’s ally, in a bid to engineer a political transition. Lukashevich said he hoped the proposal would be addressed by Annan and the UN today.
Clinton expressed doubt over Iranian involvement, saying it’s hard to imagine that “a country working so hard to keep Assad in power” could be a constructive participant.
“We think it is important to give Kofi Annan and his plan the last amount of support we can muster, because in order to bring others into a frame of mind to take action in the Security Council, there has to be a final recognition that it’s not working,” she said.