UN Monitors Fired On Amid Debate Over Next Steps on Syria

United Nations monitors in Syria were shot at when they tried to reach the scene of a reported massacre in Hama province, as UN envoy Kofi Annan asked the international community to help force President Bashar al-Assad to abide by a cease-fire.

“Clearly, the time has come to determine what more can be done to secure implementation of the plan -- and/or what other options exist to address the crisis,” Annan told the General Assembly today in New York. “If things do not change, the future is likely to be one of brutal repression, massacres, sectarian violence and even all-out civil war.”

The international community remains reluctant to intervene militarily in Syria, the opposition remains divided, and Russia now wants to include Iran, a longtime Syrian ally, in efforts to seek a possible successor to Assad, a move U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rejected immediately.

The UN observers, some of about 300 unarmed military monitors charged with overseeing the cease-fire, were fired at en route to the village of Qubair to verify reports by the opposition that at least 78 people were killed by army shelling and attacks by Shabbiha militia. While no one was injured, one of the vehicles was damaged, according to UN spokesman Martin Nesirky. He said at this stage it couldn’t be ascertained who was responsible for the shooting.

Norwegian Major General Robert Mood, head of the mission, said observers were halted at Syrian checkpoints and some were turned back. Syrian state television blamed “terrorists” for any atrocities and denied that the monitors were blocked, saying a group of them had arrived at the village.

‘Shocking, Sickening’

“The army shelled the village of Qubair with mortars, artillery and tanks from around 1 p.m. (Syrian time),” the opposition Syrian National Council said in a statement today. “Shabbiha entered the village and proceeded to randomly shoot men, women and children. Shabbiha raided houses, led a number of men out of their houses and stabbed them to death.”

The reports are “shocking and sickening,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon told the 193-member assembly.

“The United States strongly condemns the outrageous targeted killings of civilians including women and children in Al-Qubeir in Hama province as reported by multiple credible sources,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement today.

‘Affront to Dignity’

“This, coupled with the Syrian regime’s refusal to let UN observers into the area to verify these reports, is an affront to human dignity and justice,” Carney said. “There is no justification for this regime’s continued defiance of its obligations under the Annan Plan, and Assad’s continued abdication of responsibility for these horrific acts has no credibility and only further underscores the illegitimate and immoral nature of his rule.”

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 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 Annan’s arrival in New York, where he will ask the Security Council about ways to revive his moribund plan, which has failed to end the bloodshed in Syria.

Economic Lifelines

The Obama administration, still opposed to military intervention in Syria, has been pressing for the UN Security Council to cut the regime’s economic lifelines.

“The future of Syria will be determined by the Syrian people, and the international community must come together in support of their legitimate aspirations,” Carney said in the statement. “We call once more on all nations to abandon support for this brutal and illegitimate regime, and to join together to support a political transition in Syria -- one that upholds the promise of a future for which far too many have already died.”

U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner invoked yesterday the possibility of action against Syria under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter. That empowers the Security Council to mandate sanctions or authorize military means to enforce its will.

In an effort to salvage his initiative, Annan today will propose forming an international group to advance discussions on a political transition, according to three UN diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. The details of his latest pitch remained vague.

Enlisting Iran

“The international community has united, but it now must take that unity to a new level,” Annan told the General Assembly. “We must also chart a clearer course for a peaceful transition, if we are to help the Government and opposition.”

Russia, which along with China has protected the Assad government from tougher UN sanctions, is seeking to enlist Iran, Syria’s ally, in a bid to engineer a political transition.

“We hope this proposal will be examined today by United Nations and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan and the UN secretary general,” Alexander Lukashevich, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in comments broadcast on state television today. “It is our firm view that we can’t do without the participation of this state as well as other countries in the region.”

Clinton said 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.

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