DAMASCUS // United Nations observers came under fire yesterday as they tried to investigate allegations of a massacre of civilians near Hama that left about 80 people dead.
The killings come less than two weeks after the Houla atrocity in which more than 108 men, women and children were killed in their homes.
Details surrounding the latest attack, which took place on Wednesday in Qubeir, about 20 kilometres west of Hama in central Syria, remain sketchy and disputed, although both the opposition and the Syrian authorities agree a brutal act of bloodletting took place.
Syria's main opposition group in exile, the Syrian National Council, said 78 people were killed in Qubeir, with 35 of the dead from the same family and more than half of them women and children. The Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists, also said 78 people were killed, including many women and children.
According to early accounts given to journalists by residents or gathered by activists, many of the dead were women and children, who were executed with guns and knives. Some of the corpses found at the scene had been burnt; some had been handcuffed and their feet bound.
Activists said the murders were committed by nearby shabbiheh, a pro-regime militia group made up of loyalists to Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian president.
Some reports said the area, a sparsely populated farming village, had been shelled by government troops shortly before the militia entered. Others said armed rebels from the Free Syrian Army had been sheltering there.
UN officials have described a similar pattern in the May 25 massacre at Houla with artillery first being fired into the residential area, followed by close-range executions. The head of UN peacekeeping, Herve Ladsous, has said government forces were "certainly" responsible for the shelling in Houla, and that shabbiheh were "probably" responsible for the executions.
The Syrian authorities have denied any role in the Houla killings, blaming them on "armed terrorist groups" trying to undermine a UN-sponsored peace plan. Yesterday they offered the same explanation for the murders in Qubeir.
Sana, the official state news agency, said an "armed terrorist group perpetrated a heinous crime" in the village on Wednesday morning. It said nine civilians had been killed and, at the request of fearful local residents security forces had carried out a raid in which members of the "terrorist group" were killed.
It also said two security officers had been killed, and another two wounded.
Syrian state television quoted an official as saying the attacks were carried out by opponents of the government as part of a "conspiracy" to influence UN meetings.
Kofi Annan, the architect of a UN-Arab League peace plan for Syria, briefed the UN General Assembly yesterday, amid growing calls in the aftermath of Houla for the international community to take firmer action to enforce a failed ceasefire and find a political solution for the crisis.
UN observers based in Hama city were dispatched to the scene yesterday morning but General Robert Mood, the head of the UN monitoring mission in Syria, said they had been prevented from entering by government forces and civilians.
"They are being stopped at Syrian army checkpoints and in some cases turned back," Gen Mood said in a statement. "Some of our patrols are being stopped by civilians in the area."
"Despite these challenges, the observers are still working to get into the village to try to establish the facts on the ground," he added.
He also said local residents had warned his teams "that the safety of our observers is at risk if we enter the village of Mazraat Al Qubeir".
Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, later told the General Assembly meeting that monitors had come under small-arms fire trying to enter the area.
"No military observers were injured but one vehicle was slightly damaged," said the UN spokesman Farhan Haq. "The monitors were not able to enter Al Qubeir today. They will try again tomorrow."
Al Dounia, a privately run Syrian satellite network that has been zealously supportive of Mr Al Assad, yesterday claimed that UN observers had arrived in Qubeir.
The killings have added to fears that Syria - parts of which already resemble a country in a state of civil war - is quickly descending towards even greater chaos. Both the government and the opposition explanation of the Qubeir killings - should either be proven correct by the UN - would provide evidence of an unravelling security situation and rising intensity of violence that shows no sign of abating.
The Qubeir attacks also have a sectarian dimension, with the village inhabited by Sunnis but the surrounding area home to Alawites. Mr Al Assad and much of his inner circle are Alawites, a sect of Shia Islam, as are many army, security officers and shabbiheh militia fighters most loyal to the regime.
Sunni Arabs make up a majority of Syria's population - 70 per cent or more - with Alawites, Christians, Ismailis and ethnic Kurds accounting for the rest.
The prospects of a peaceful resolution to a crisis that has already resulted in more than 12,000 people being killed seem increasingly slim. In a speech on Sunday, Mr Al Assad pledged to fight on against terrorists, saying Syria was at war and effectively ruling out talks with the major opposition groups.
Opposition factions have also said they will not talk to the Syrian regime while it continues to kill and arrest protesters, and no longer feel bound by the Annan plan ceasefire in light of repeated government violations.
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Associated Press