Monitors blocked by Syrian troops from entering Hama massacre site

Monitors blocked by Syrian troops from entering Hama massacre site

BEIRUT - The Associated Press
Monitors blocked by Syrian troops from entering Hama massacre site

Norwegian Major-General Robert Mood chats with a Syrian army officer during the United Nations observers' visit to Hama city, May 3. REUTERS photo

The chief of U.N. observers in Syria says his monitors have been blocked by Syrian troops from the site of a new mass killing.

Gen. Robert Mood said in a statement today that some U.N. patrols were also stopped by civilians in the area and that observers have been informed by residents that their safety will be at risk if they entered Mazraat al-Qubair in central Hama province.

Syria had denied as "absolutely baseless" claims by opposition groups about a new massacre in Hama in which government forces allegedly killed dozens of people, including women and children.

The exact death toll and circumstances of the overnight killings in Mazraat al-Qubair on the outskirts of Hama were impossible to confirm but the violence is bound to reinforce the growing belief that a peace plan brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan is unraveling as the country spirals toward civil war.

The violence comes on the heels of a horrific massacre in late May in Houla, a cluster of villages in the central Homs province, which left over 100 dead including many children and women gunned down in their homes.

U.N. investigators blamed pro-government gunmen for at least some of the killings but the Syrian regime denied responsibility and blamed rebels for the deaths. The Houla massacre triggered international outrage and a coordinated expulsion of Syrian diplomats from world capitals.

Syria said today "an armed terrorist group committed an appalling crime" in Mazraat al-Qubair, killing nine women and children. A government statement published on the state-run news agency SANA said that after the crime, residents there appealed on Syrian authorities in Hama to intervene to protect them, adding that competent authorities headed to the farm and stormed a hideout of the group and clashed with them.

Clashes resulted in the killing of all members of the group. Two security agents were killed and five others wounded, it said.

Al-Qubair is a small farm in the overwhelmingly Sunni village of Maarzaf around 20 kilometers west of the city of Hama with around 30 homes and around 160 inhabitants.

Attempts to reach eyewitnesses and residents of the area were unsuccessful today, making the verification of what went on extremely difficult. The Syrian government keeps tight restrictions on journalists.