By EDITH M. LEDERER and ZEINA KARAM, Associated Press
BEIRUT (AP) — U.N. observers came under fire Thursday as they tried to reach the site of the latest reported mass killing in Syria — about 80 people, including women and children who were shot or stabbed. The deaths added urgency to diplomatic efforts to end the escalating bloodshed.
As reports emerged of what would be the fourth such mass slaying of civilians in Syria in the last two weeks, the United States condemned President Bashar Assad, saying he has "doubled down on his brutality and duplicity."
U.N. patrols in Syria have on several instances been deliberately targeted with heavy weapons, armor-piercing ammunition and a surveillance drone, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council, according to a senior U.N. official. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because Thursday's council meeting was private, said Ban also reported repeated incidents of firing close to U.N. patrols, apparently to get them to withdraw.
International envoy Kofi Annan, whose peace plan brokered in April has not been implemented, warned against allowing "mass killings to become part of everyday reality in Syria."
"If things do not change, the future is likely to be one of brutal repression, massacres, sectarian violence, and even all-out civil war," Annan told the U.N. General Assembly in New York. "All Syrians will lose."
U.N. diplomats said Annan was proposing that world powers and key regional players, including Iran, come up with a new strategy to end the 15-month conflict at a closed meeting of the Security Council that took place Thursday.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Annan highlighted the urgency of taking action to diffuse the situation.
Standing alongside Annan and League of Arab States Secretary General Nabil Elaraby, Ban echoed the sense of urgency.
"The three of us agree: Syria can quickly go from a tipping point to a breaking point. The danger of full-scale civil war is imminent and real, with catastrophic consequences for Syria and the region," Ban warned.
Any proposal to resolve the situation, however, must be acceptable to Russia and China, which have protected ally from past U.N. sanctions, as well as the U.S. and its European allies, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity because consultations have been private.
The latest violence centered on Mazraat al-Qubair, a small farming community of 160 people, mostly Bedouins, in central Hama province. Activists said the Sunni village is surrounded by Alawite villages. Alawites are an offshoot of Shiite Islam and Assad is a member of the sect, while the opposition is dominated by Sunnis.
A resident said troops shelled the area for five hours Wednesday before government-aligned militiamen known as "shabiha" entered the area that is known to shelter army defectors, "killing and hacking everyone they could find."
Leith Al-Hamwy told The Associated Press by telephone that he survived by hiding in an olive grove about 800 meters (yards) from the farms as the killings took place. But he said his mother and six siblings, the youngest 10-year-old twins, did not.
"When I came out of hiding and went inside the houses, I saw bodies everywhere. Entire families either shot or killed with sharp sticks and knives," he said.
Al-Hamwy would not give his exact location or real name, fearing for his safety, but said he was waiting for U.N. observers to come to the farm. Al-Hamwy's account could not be independently confirmed or corroborated by other eyewitnesses.
He said the gunmen set his family home on fire and his family burned to death, huddled in a concrete attic above their bathroom, where they stored food provisions. Around 80 people in total died, he said, many of them children, and that most of the villages 20 homes were either destroyed by the shelling or burned down.
"There's flesh of animals and humans scattered, the smell of smoke from burning houses and bodies," al-Hamwy said.
Syria's main opposition group in exile, the Syrian National Council, also said 78 people were killed in Mazraat al-Qubair when government-aligned militiamen converged on the village from neighboring pro-regime villages. Some of the dead were shot in the head, others were slain with knives, the SNC said. It said 35 of the dead were from the same family and more than half of them were women and children.