United Nations’ observers reached the site of an alleged massacre in Syria, where they found evidence of killings in a now-abandoned farming village set amid cornfields.
“We found burned homes, and at least one burnt with bodies inside -- there was a heavy stench of burned flesh,” Sausan Ghosheh, spokeswoman for the UN observers, said in her account posted yesterday on the mission’s website.
The group of 25 UN observers reached the township mid-afternoon yesterday, after having been obstructed by the Syrian Army and small-arms fire, she said. A BBC reporter described a “remarkably appalling scene” of burned homes containing pools of blood and bits of human flesh.
BBC correspondent Paul Danahar, who was traveling with the UN observers, said it was unclear what happened to the bodies of as many as 78 people that opposition activists said were killed in the village of Mazraat al-Qubair. A man from a neighboring village said a pickup truck arrived after the killings and took bodies away, Danahar said in an audio report posted today on the BBC website.
More than half of those killed in the village, in Hama province, were women and children, with some dying during army shelling and others burned or stabbed by pro-government shabiha militiamen who arrived an hour later, the opposition Syrian National Council said June 7 in a statement on Facebook. Syrian state television denied that and blamed “terrorists” for any atrocities.
“Residents from neighboring villages came to speak to us, but none of them were witness to the killings on Wednesday,” the UN’s Ghosheh said. “The circumstances surrounding this incident are yet not clear, and we have not yet been able to verify the numbers.”
The Qubair attack follows the massacre of 108 people, including 49 children, in Houla May 25 in one of the worst atrocities of the 15-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Syria also denied responsibility for the Houla killings, accusing rebel fighters of carrying them out to cause the collapse of a peace plan brokered by Kofi Annan, the United Nations-Arab League special envoy.
About 50 people were killed across Syria yesterday, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an activist group. Seventeen people, most of whom women and children, died from shelling in the city of Daraa, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported today on its Facebook page.
Syrian state television cited an unidentified official as saying “terrorist groups” attacked private and public institutions in the coastal city of Latakia. Three people were also killed in a car bomb in the outskirts of Damascus, it said.
Annan warned at the UN on June 7 that Syria was headed toward a future of “brutal repression, massacres, sectarian violence and even all-out civil war.” Privately, he told the 15-member Security Council that his efforts to bring about peace can’t be open-ended and international consultations must yield results, according to diplomats who were present and described the remarks on condition of anonymity.
Annan met yesterday in Washington with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to discuss the outlook for his failing peace plan. Neither commented publicly on the latest killings.
“Some say the plan may be dead,” Annan said, speaking at the State Department alongside Clinton. “Is the problem the plan, or the problem is implementation? If it’s implementation, how do we get action on that? And if it’s the plan, what other options do we have? All of those questions are now being discussed.”
Russian and U.S. officials held talks in Moscow yesterday on the conflict in a bid to narrow differences before a meeting between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama in Mexico this month.
Fred Hof, the State Department’s special envoy to the Syrian opposition, and the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, met with two Russian deputy foreign ministers, Mikhail Bogdanov and Gennady Gatilov, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its website.
The two sides “exchanged opinions about ways to facilitate a peaceful settlement in Syria with an emphasis on mobilizing international support” for all parties to implement Annan’s cease-fire plan, the ministry said, saying “practical aspects” of a Russian proposal for a conference on Syria were also discussed.
The former Cold War foes are at odds over U.S. and western efforts to oust Assad, a Russian ally. Their latest disagreement concerns Russia’s initiative to involve Iran in talks to end the bloodshed in Syria and find a possible successor to Assad.
Putin has picked up “positive” feedback from France, China and Iran on a proposal to gather all nations that have sway over Assad and the opposition to come together for talks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said June 7.
Saudi Arabia and Iran should both play a role in the meeting, Bogdanov said yesterday in an interview with Russian state broadcaster RT. Russia is holding “intensive consultations” with the possible participants, he said.
“The Syrian crisis and attempts to find a peaceful political resolution of this crisis may provide a basis for reconciling the interests of all the leading, most influential players,” Bogdanov told RT, according to a transcript of his comments.
The initiative was rejected by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who expressed doubts that Iran would play a constructive role. Iran, whose Shiite rulers have close ties to Assad’s minority Alawite regime, is Syria’s strongest backer along with Russia and China.
This week’s preliminary round of discussions in Moscow will lay the groundwork for the meeting between Obama and Putin at the Group of 20 summit June 18-19 in Los Cabos, Mexico. Putin, inaugurated for a six-year term on May 7, skipped last month’s summit of the Group of Eight at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland.
Russia has shielded the Assad regime, its biggest Middle-East ally, vowing to veto any attempt to impose sanctions on the Syrian government or to approve military action through the UN Security Council. That threat has hobbled international efforts to pressure the Assad government as the conflict escalated from peaceful protests into armed fighting with sectarian undercurrents.