UN monitors entered the Syrian hamlet of Mazraat al-Qubeir today, where up to 78 people were reported killed in cold blood two days earlier and a BBC correspondent with them said it was clear a “terrible crime” had taken place.
"It was an appalling scene," said the correspondent, Paul Danahar. "What we didn't find were any bodies of people. What we did find were tracks on the tarmac (that) the UN said looked like armoured personnel carriers or tanks."
The alleged massacre has underlined how little outside powers, divided and pursuing their own interests in the region, have been able to do to halt 15 months of carnage in Syria.
Many Syrian civilians are fleeing their homes to escape widening fighting between security forces and rebels, the Red Cross said, while the outside world seems unable to craft an alternative to envoy Kofi Annan's failing peace plan.
"Some say that the plan may be dead," Annan said before meeting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington.
"Is the problem the plan or the problem is implementation?" he asked. "If it's implementation, how do we get action on that? And if it is the plan, what other options do we have?"
The UN monitors reached the farming settlement of Mazraat al-Qubeir, where about 150 people had lived, one day after Syrian armed forces and villagers had turned them away.
"It is not hard to verify, as soon as you walk into the first house you are hit by the stench of burnt flesh," the BBC's Danahar said. "You can see that a terrible crime has taken place, everything has been burnt, houses have been gutted, there is an RPG (that has) blown a hole at the side of the house.
"The most distressing scenes were at the house next door. I walked in and saw pieces of brains lying on the floor. There was a tablecloth covered in blood and flesh and someone had tried to mop the blood up by pushing it into the corner, but seems they had given up because there was so much of it around," he said.
Activists say at least 78 people were shot, stabbed or burned alive in the Sunni Muslim hamlet on Wednesday.
Some 300 UN observers are in Syria to monitor a truce between President Bashar al-Assad's forces and rebels that Annan declared on April 12 but was never implemented.
Now reduced to observing the violence, they have already verified one massacre in Houla, a town where 108 men, women and children were slain on May 25. The UN peacekeeping chief said Syrian troops and pro-Assad militia were probably responsible.
The Syrian authorities have condemned the killings in Houla and Mazraat al-Qubeir, blaming them on "terrorists".
More and more civilians are fleeing their homes to escape fighting, while sick or wounded people are finding it hard to reach medical services or buy food, said a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva.
Protests and strife erupted across Syria today.
A car bomb aimed at a bus carrying security men exploded in a Damascus suburb, killing at least two, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights watchdog said.
Another car bomb hit a police branch in the northwestern city of Idlib, killing at least five people, it said.
Syrian forces shelled and then tried to storm the rebel-held district of Khalidiya in the central city of Homs, the heart of the revolt against Assad, the British-based Observatory said.
Activists said 10 rockets a minute crashed into Khalidiya in one of the fierce bombardments to hit Homs. Videos posted on the Internet showed plumes of grey smoke rising from buildings.
Activist footage of protests said to be in the northern city of Aleppo showed crowds fleeing from tear gas and gunfire.
In Deraa, the southern birthplace of the uprising, Syrian forces pounded rebel hideouts in the rugged Luja area, after many soldiers had defected, activists and residents said.
Heavy gunfire erupted in the Damascus neighbourhood of Kfar Souseh after a loud blast there, activists said.
"The Syrian people are bleeding," Ban said at the United Nations yesterday, warning of an "imminent" civil war.
There is little sign of the firm action he called for from a world divided between Assad's opponents and countries such as China, Russia and Iran which are deeply suspicious of Western and Arab states determined to unseat the Syrian leader.
China again urged both sides to comply with Annan's peace plan, which Assad and his foes had accepted, although the rebels said this week they were no longer bound by the truce.
Russia and China have twice vetoed Western-backed Security Council resolutions critical of Syria, whose security forces have killed at least 10,000 people, by a UN count, while losing more than 2,600 of their own, according to Damascus.
Stepping up US pressure on Russia to support a Syrian transition that would include Assad's exit from power, State Department official Fred Hof met Russian Deputy Foreign Ministers Gennady Gatilov and Mikhail Bogdanov in Moscow.
Bogdanov said Annan's plan, which does not directly call for Assad's departure, could be adjusted to improve implementation but its core elements must remain.
He has said Moscow would be open to a negotiated Yemen-style power transition in Syria, referring to a deal under which Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down in February after a year of unrest.
In Syria, the conflict is becoming much more sectarian than the one in Yemen. The shabbiha militiamen from Assad's Shi'ite-rooted Alawite sect appear to be off the leash, targeting Sunni civilians almost regardless of their part in the uprising.
Activists said those killed in Mazraat al-Qubeir had not previously been caught up in the conflict.
Moscow and Beijing have decried the killings of civilians, but resist any plan for coerced political transition, let alone military intervention - not that the West is ready for this.
Clinton has said her country is willing to work on a broad conference on Syria's political future, as long as Assad goes.
She has criticised the idea, favoured by Annan and Moscow, of a contact group that would bring together major powers as well as regional ones, including Iran, a strategic ally of Assad with much at stake in Syria and neighbouring Lebanon.
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