Syrian army blocks U.N. monitors entering Hama ‘massacre’ site: activists, U.N. official

Syrian forces had been shelling al-Qubair and the nearby village of Maazarif, which are around 20 km (12 miles) from the central city of Hama. (File photo)

The Syrian army on Thursday prevented a team of United Nations monitors from entering the village of al-Qubair, a central province of Hama, following reports of the killings of at least 55 villagers by militants loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, activists and a U.N. official said.

“The U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria dispatched U.N. observers to al-Qubair early Thursday morning to verify reports of large-scale killings in the village,” General Robert Mood said in a statement reported by AFP.

He said the observers were stopped at Syrian army checkpoints and in some cases turned back. He said civilians were also stopping the monitors.

“We are receiving information from residents of the area that the safety of our observers is at risk if we enter (the) village of al-Qubair,” Mood said.

There have been conflicting reports surrounding the death toll at al-Qubair. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 55 people were killed in Wednesday’s assault on the area, and added that UN observers were rushing to the site to check on the massacre.

“There are 49 confirmed and identified victims in al-Qubair, the majority of them from the Al-Yateem family,” said Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the Britain-based Observatory.

“Among the dead are 18 women and children,” he said, adding that six other people were also killed on Wednesday in a village near al-Qubair, which is in a farming area northwest of Hama city.

Earlier tolls from opposition groups had put the death toll at between 87 and 100.

The Syrian government on Thursday rebuffed accusations that it carried out the massacre and reported there had been only nine deaths.

Opposition groups said the “new massacre” was carried out at a farm by the pro-regime Shabiha militia armed with guns and knives after regular troops had shelled the area, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement.

But the Syrian regime denied any involvement.

“What a few media have reported on what happened in al-Qubair, in the Hama region, is completely false,” the government said in a statement on official television.

“A terrorist group committed a heinous crime in the Hama region which claimed nine victims. The reports by the media are contributing to spilling the blood of Syrians,” the statement said.

On Wednesday, prominent opposition group, the Syrian National Council, told AFP news agency that forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad “massacred” about 100 people, including many women and children, at al-Qubair.

Other sources also reported that a “massacre” had taken place in the same area, including opposition activists and the British-based Observatory, which tentatively put the number of dead at 87.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said Thursday the international community has to do more to isolate the Syrian regime after the latest “brutal and sickening” massacre in the country.

“We need to do much more to isolate Syria,” Cameron told reporters during a quick stop in Oslo, responding to reports of the latest massacre there. “If these reports are true, it is yet another brutal and sickening attack, and frankly the international community has got to condemn absolutely this regime and President Assad for what he is doing.”

Russia on Thursday said the new massacre in Syria undermines Annan’s plan.

“There is no question that certain forces, not for the first time, are using the most brutal and vile provocations to undermine the plan of Kofi Annan,” Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich told a regular briefing in televised remarks, referring to the latest violence in Hama.

Meanwhile, Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood accused the Damascus regime of being behind the new massacre, also reporting that more than 100 people had been killed on Wednesday in the town of al-Qubair.

“The series of successive massacres continues,” the group said, adding that the international community, including Arab and Muslim countries, are also accountable for the latest killings.

The deaths follow a two-day massacre that began on May 25 near the central town of Houla, where at least 108 people were killed, while most of them women and children who were summarily executed, according to the United Nations.

Syria’s 15-month revolt against President Assad’s rule has grown increasingly bloody in recent months, raising concerns the country may be slipping towards civil war.

Both massacres have happened in the presence of United Nations observers, a 300-strong force sent into Syria to observe a ceasefire deal brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan. The truce was hardly observed by the government or the rebels, who last week said they would no longer honor the ceasefire because of recent killings.

Friends of Syria

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Western and Arab nations at a meeting in Istanbul on Wednesday that a transition strategy in Syria must include President Bashar al-Assad’s full transfer of power, a senior U.S. State Department official said.

“Tonight the secretary laid out a set of essential elements and principles which we believe should guide that post-Assad transition strategy, including Assad’s full transfer of power,” the official told reporters after the meeting.

Clinton also told the meeting that transition in Syria must include a fully representative interim government that would lead to free and fair elections.

Hosted by Turkish President Ahmet Davutoglu, the late night meeting included top officials from the EU, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Tunisia, Morocco and Turkey.

In a written statement, host country Turkey said the members had agreed to convene a “coordination group” to provide support to the Syrian opposition. Each country had agreed to send a representative to Istanbul on June 15-16 to attend the coordination meeting of all the Syrian opposition groups.

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