UN monitors on Friday entered for the first time the Syrian village where up to 78 people were reportedly killed in cold blood on Wednesday, the latest in a series of atrocities that have underlined the gravity of the escalating crisis.
The observers were met with scenes of burned-out houses, charred human remains and the clear impression that a “terrible crime” had occurred in Mazraat al-Qubair near Hama, according to a BBC correspondent following the UN team. On Thursday the monitors were fired at and their access blocked by Syrian forces.
“It is not hard to verify. As soon as you walk into the first house, you are hit by the stench of burnt flesh,” reported Paul Danahar. “You can see that a terrible crime has taken place. Everything has been burnt, houses have been gutted. The most distressing scenes were at the house next door. I walked in and saw 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 it seems they had given up because there was so much of it around.”
In a video clip posted on the internet, a Syrian woman named Lathat calmly described how the hamlet had been attacked by “regime forces and Shabiha” (government militia) who killed children, including two of her daughters, with knives and axes. “The army came with the Shabiha with a tank,” she said. “May God take revenge on Bashar al-Assad.” Like much material emanating from Syria, it was impossible to verify independently.
Syrian state media have said nine people in al-Qubair were killed by “armed terrorist gangs” – official terminology for all opponents of Assad. Damascus similarly denied responsibility for the killing of 108 people, including 39 children, in Houla two weeks ago.
Opposition sources reported heavy fighting in the Damascus suburb of Kfar Souseh, home to many government buildings, after a huge anti-regime demonstration on Thursday. Protests were reported across the country on a day opposition groups dubbed a “Friday of unity between rebels and traders” – symbolising the solidarity that they say is needed to bring down the regime. Parts of Homs came under heavy mortar and shellfire, activists said.
Film clips posted online also showed demonstrations in Aleppo, Syria’s second city, and in Deraa, where the uprising began in March 2011. An estimated 15,000 people have been killed since then.
The Syrian Revolution General Commission reported a total of 26 dead nationwide. Another opposition group gave a total of 31. Another film clip from the Idlib area was said to show Syrian soldiers mocking corpses they were moving into a building before blowing it up — apparently to blame the attack on the rebels of the Free Syrian Army. Activists said it was filmed on March 21.
Diplomatic efforts to tackle Syria meanwhile continued in Washington, where Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, met Kofi Annan, whose six-point peace plan is in danger of collapsing. Annan, envoy of the UN and Arab League, has admitted that his plan is not being implemented by Assad and warned against allowing “mass killings to become part of everyday reality in Syria”. Annan wants stronger backing from an international contact group that would include all five permanent members of the UN security council as well as regional powers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. But the US and its western partners firmly oppose membership for Iran, a close Syrian ally.
In Moscow, a senior US official, Fred Hof, urged Russia to throw its weight behind the element of the plan that would see Assad step down. But Russia, like China, still says it opposes regime change.
As the debate over responses to the crisis continues, the former UK foreign secretary, Lord Owen, has urged Turkey to lead a Nato threat to intervene in Syria as a way of ending the “devastating” impotence of the international community. Owen, foreign secretary between 1977-79, writes in the Guardian: “The challenge is to hammer out guidelines for a Turkish-led Nato military threat to intervene in Syria to support Kofi Annan’s diplomacy when needed. Russia and the Arab League have key roles as have the US, UK and France but the scale of the humanitarian tragedy in Syria demands speedy solutions.”