Houla massacre - Reuters - May 26, 2012
People gather at a mass burial for the victims purportedly killed during an artillery barrage from Syrian forces in Houla in this handout image dated May 26, 2012. Photo by Reuters
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UN monitors seeking to reach the site of a new reported massacre of Syrian villagers by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad were shot at with small arms, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Thursday.

Ban, speaking at the start of a special UN General Assembly session on the Syrian crisis, condemned the reported massacre at Mazraat al-Qubeir and called again on Assad to immediately implement international mediator Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan.

"Today's news reports of another massacre ... are shocking and sickening," he told the 193-nation assembly. "A village apparently surrounded by Syrian forces. The bodies of innocent civilians lying where they were, shot. Some allegedly burned or slashed with knives."

"We condemn this unspeakable barbarity and renew our determination to bring those responsible to account," he said.

Ban said UN monitors were initially denied access to the site. "They are working now to get to the scene," he said. "And I just learned a few minutes ago that while trying to do so the UN monitors were shot at with small arms."

A short while afterward, a UN spokeswoman said that the United Nations monitors were unable to visit the village of Mazraat al-Qubeir on Thursday where activists say at least 78 people were massacred, and will continue efforts to reach the site on Friday in daylight hours.

"They are going back to their base in Hama and they will try again tomorrow morning," spokeswoman Sausan Ghosheh said. Chief observer General Robert Mood said earlier they had been turned back by Syrian soldiers and also stopped by civilians.

Ban was addressing the General Assembly on Thursday ahead Annan's expected presentation to the UN Security Council on Thursday of a new proposal in a last-ditch effort to rescue his failing peace plan for Syria, where 15 months of violence have brought it to the brink of civil war.

Speaking to the General Assembly after Ban, Annan also condemned the new reported massacre and acknowledged that his peace plan was not working.

The U.S. administration also condemned the massacre in Hama.

"The United States strongly condemns the outrageous targeted killings of civilians including women and children in Al-Qubeir in Hama province as reported by multiple credible sources", the White House spokesman said in a statement. "This, coupled with the Syrian regime’s refusal to let UN observers into the area to verify these reports, is an affront to human dignity and justice."

Israel's ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, issued a statement to the Syrian people on behalf of Israel.

"We hear your cries. We are horrified by the crimes of the Assad regime," Prosor said. "We extend our hand to you. Assad is not the only one with the blood of the Syrian people on his hands. Iran and Hezbollah sit on his advisory board, offering guidance on how to butcher the Syrian people more efficiently. It is high time for the voices of the victims in Syria to finally unite the voices of the world against the tyrant of Damascus."

The Syrian opposition and Western and Gulf nations seeking the ouster of President Bashar Assad increasingly see Annan's six-point peace plan as doomed due to the Syrian government's determination to use military force to crush an increasingly militarized opposition.

The core of Annan's proposal, diplomats said, would be the establishment of a contact group that would bring together Russia, China, the United States, Britain, France and key regional players with influence on Syria's government and the opposition, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Iran.

By creating such a contact group, envoys said, Annan would also be trying to break the deadlock among the five permanent council members that has pitted veto powers Russia and China against the United States, Britain and France and prevented any meaningful UN action on the Syrian conflict, envoys said.

It would attempt to map out a "political transition" for Syria that would lead to Assad stepping aside and the holding of free elections, envoys said. One diplomat said the idea was "vaguely similar" to a political transition deal for Yemen that led to the president's ouster.

The main point of Annan's proposal, they said, is to get Russia to commit to the idea of a Syrian political transition, which remains the thrust of Annan's six-point peace plan, which both the Syrian government and opposition said they accepted earlier this year but have failed to implement.

"We're trying to get the Russians to understand that if they don't give up on Assad, they stand to lose all their interests in Syria if this thing blows up into a major regional war involving Lebanon, Iran, Saudis," a Western diplomat told Reuters. "So far the Russians have not agreed."

Apart from lucrative Russian arms sales to Damascus, Syria hosts Russia's only warm water port outside the former Soviet Union. While Russia has said it is not protecting Assad, it has given no indications that it is ready to abandon him.

Last week, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice suggested that if Russia continued to prevent the Security Council from putting pressure on Syria, states may have no choice but to consider acting outside the United Nations.

Diplomats said the West has been pushing Russia to abandon Assad in a series of recent meetings between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with their European and U.S. counterparts.

An unnamed diplomat leaked further details of Annan's proposal to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, who said that if the contact group agreed on a transition deal for Syria, it could mean Russian exile for Assad. The Post article said another option for Assad would be to seek exile in Iran, Syria's other staunch ally.

Annan's peace efforts have failed to halt the violence, as demonstrated by a recent massacre in Houla that led to the deaths of at least 108 men, women and children, most likely by the army and allied militia, according the United Nations.

Opposition members said there was a similar massacre on Wednesday in Hama province, with at least 78 people killed. UN monitors were prevented from reaching it, though a pro-government Syrian television station said the unarmed monitoring force did reach the village of Mazraat al-Qubeir.