Syria on Thursday denied as "absolutely baseless" claims by opposition groups about a new massacre in the central Hama province 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 on Thursday said "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.
The statement said the killings were meant to put pressure on the Syrian regime ahead of the U.N. Security Council meeting.
British Prime Minister David Cameron urged concerted action from the international community against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime following the latest reports. He said Thursday that if the reports of the "brutal and sickening attack" are true, it adds further proof that the Assad regime is "completely illegitimate and cannot stand."
Speaking during a visit to Norway, Cameron insisted more must be done to isolate Assad's regime and show that "the whole world" wants to see political transition in Syria and condemns "absolutely" the Syrian regime.
The exact circumstances of the violence in Hama were impossible to independently confirm.
Al-Qubair is a small farm in the overwhelmingly Sunni village of Maarzaf around 20 kilometers (12 miles) 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 Thursday, making the verification of what went on extremely difficult. The Syrian government keeps tight restrictions on journalists.
Activists said the Sunni village is surrounded by a string of Alawite villages. Alawites are an offshoot of Shiite Islam and Assad is a member of the sect.
The Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights said Thursday that "dozens" of people were killed overnight in Mazraat al-Qubair but Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the group which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said he was still documenting names of the dead. He said the circumstances of the killings were still unclear and called on U.N. observers to visit the area immediately.
The Local Coordination Committees group gave a far higher death toll, saying more than 78 people were killed, including many women and children. It says pro-government militiamen known as shabiha first shelled the farming area and then went in and killed the residents there. It says some of the dead were stabbed to death while other bodies were burned.
Syria's main opposition group in exile, the Syrian National Council, also said 78 people were killed. It said 35 of them were from the same Al-Yatim family and more than half of them women and children. It said the militiamen converged on Qubair from neighboring pro-regime villages. It said some of the dead were killed execution-style, others were slain with knives.
"Women and children were burned inside their homes in al-Qubair," said Mousab Alhamadee, an activist based in the central province of Hama.
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