UNITED NATIONS/WASHINGTON -- The United Nations says its unarmed monitors in Syria were shot at and blocked from investigating the site of a newly reported mass killing, fueling more international condemnation of President Bashar al-Assad's government.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the U.N. General Assembly Thursday that international observers were denied access to the village of Mazraat al-Qubeir in central Hama province and "were shot at with small arms" while trying to get there.
While Mr. Ban did not directly blame Syrian forces for the latest reported atrocity, he harshly criticized what appeared to be a government effort to block monitors from visiting the site of Wednesday's massacre in which at least 78 people were killed, half of them women and children, including 35 members of one family. Some were stabbed and burned.
Kieran Dwyer, spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping department, said the observers were forced to turn back and were not injured, although one vehicle was hit and slightly damaged.
Diplomacy Ramps Up
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."
Annan urged the divided U.N. Security Council and the rest of the international community to unite and act immediately to intensify pressure, especially on Mr. Assad's government. If things do not change, he warned, Syria will likely face a future of "brutal repression, massacres, sectarian violence and even all-out civil war" in which "all Syrians will lose." The U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria said Damascus must understand there will be consequences if it does not comply with his six-point peace plan.
Diplomats said Annan proposed 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 on Thursday. Annan is scheduled to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Friday in Washington.
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said she did not think Iran was ready to play a constructive role in the Syrian situation, while Russia said Tehran should be a part of any such group. Arab League chief Nabil al-Araby said he would support a contact group if it is action-oriented and could halt the violence. He added that all kinds of pressure, excluding the use of force, should be applied to end the crisis.
Fourth Mass Killing in Last Two Weeks
If confirmed, the Qubeir massacre would be the fourth such mass slaying of civilians in Syria in the last two weeks.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said pro-government 'shabiha' militiamen armed with guns and knives carried out the attack in Mazraat al-Qubeir after regular troops had shelled the area.
The Syrian government blamed a terrorist group for the violence.
Qubeir, on the outskirts of Hama, is small and mostly Sunni Muslim. Residents said shabiha raided the settlement from two neighboring villages of Alawites, a minority Muslim sect to which the Assad family and high-ranking members of the military and security apparatus belong to.
The White House Thursday accused the Syrian government of orchestrating "the outrageous targeted killings of civilians, including women and children…as reported by multiple credible sources."
Thousands of Syrians have died in attacks and clashes since the cease-fire was put in place, and the presence of hundreds of U.N. observers has not been able to stem the violence.
Clinton Looks Beyond Assad
Speaking Thursday in Istanbul, Secretary Clinton said Mr. Assad has "doubled down on his brutality and duplicity," and that the time has come for a post-Assad Syria. "We have to unite the international community behind a plan that is achievable and keeps faith with those inside Syria who are protesting and demonstrating, suffering and dying for their universal human rights," she said.
The secretary of state told reporters that part of convincing Russia and China of the need to move forward with a political transition is accepting the failure of the Annan cease-fire plan. "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 is not working," she said.
In the past week, Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have discussed the political transition in Yemen as a possible model for Syria. Clinton says then-Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh ultimately gave up power because the international pressure, isolation, and sanctions were just too much.
Even as Clinton criticized the Syrian leader, China - one of Mr. Assad’s leading allies along with Russia - reiterated its opposition to any effort to oust him outside the existing Annan plan to end the fighting, seeming to limit prospects for any breakthrough.
Russia and China have blocked strong action against Damascus in the U.N. Security Council. Clinton and Annan are working to get Moscow and Beijing on board with tougher U.N. action against President Assad.
Bob Moog, of North Carolina State University, said Russian interests will need to be taken into consideration for the peace plan to take hold. "It's going to take a realization on the part of the Russians that they are essentially on the losing side, that the Assad regime is not going to survive a civil war in Syria, and that they are going to lose everything if they continue to hold out and fail to cooperate with much of the rest of the world," he said.
Moog also said expectations are low for what the U.N. can do to help the Syrian situation.
The exiled opposition Syrian National Council called on the Free Syrian Army and other armed opposition groups to respond by escalating their resistance. British Prime Minister David Cameron called the reported attack "brutal and sickening." He said that if true, the international community must do more to condemn "absolutely" the government of President Assad.
VOA's Carla Babb and Scott Stearns contributed to this report.