UN monitors 'shot at' in Syria


United Nations monitors seeking to reach the site of a new reported massacre of Syrian villagers by forces loyal to president Bashar al-Assad were shot at with small arms, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said today.

Mr 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 Dr 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 U.N. 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." Mr Ban was addressing the General Assembly ahead Annan's expected presentation to the UN Security Council today 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, Mr Annan also condemned the new reported massacre and acknowledged that his peace plan was not working.The Syrian opposition and Western and Gulf nations seeking the ouster of Dr Assad increasingly see Mr 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 Mr 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, Mr 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 Dr 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 removal.

The main point of Dr Annan's proposal, they said, is to get Russia to commit to the idea of a Syrian political transition, which remains the thrust of Dr 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 Dr 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 said. "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 Dr Assad, it has given no indications that it is ready to abandon him.
Earlier, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton Dr Assad to hand over power and leave his country, condemning a massacre near the town of Hama that opponents have blamed on his supporters as "unconscionable".

Speaking this afternoon at a a news conference in Istanbul, Mrs Clinton said the United States was willing to work with all members of the United Nations Security Council in a conference on Syria's political future as long as it started with the premise that Dr Assad gives way to a democratic government.

"Assad must transfer power and depart Syria," Mrs Clinton said after meeting foreign ministers from Arab and Western nations to discuss counter-terrorism.

"The regime-sponsored violence that we witnessed again in Hama yesterday is simply unconscionable. Assad has doubled down on his brutality and his duplicity and Syria will not, cannot be peaceful, stable or certainly democratic until Assad goes."

Syrian troops and militiamen loyal to Dr Assad stood accused by opponents today of at least 78 people at Mazraat al-Qabeer, near Hama, will pile on pressure for world powers to act, but there is little sign they can overcome a paralysis born of sharp divisions between Western and Arab states and Dr Assad's defenders in Russia, China and Iran.

The Syrian army is understood to have prevented a team of United Nations monitors from entering the village of Mazraat al-Qubeir following reports of the killings.

Sausan Ghosheh, a spokeswoman for the UN monitors, would not comment directly on whether entry to the village had been refused, saying: "We have despatched a patrol which is trying to get access there”.

Several activists who monitor the 15-month-old revolt  said women and children were among the dead when the village in central Syria came under artillery bombardment before fighters moved in on the ground and shot and stabbed dozens of others.

Echoing descriptions of a massacre of 108 civilians at Houla on May 25th, which UN observers attributed to Dr Assad's troops and loyalist "shabbiha" militia, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said: "Shabbiha headed into the area after the shelling and killed dozens of citizens, among them women and children."

Some activists said at least 40 of the dead were women and children. At Houla, near Homs, nearly half had been children.

In that earlier case, Dr Assad himself condemned the atrocity but denied any hand in it and blamed opponents whom he described as foreign-backed "terrorists."

Shabbiha, drawn mostly from Dr Assad's minority Alawite sect that identifies with the Shi'ites of Iran, have been blamed for the killings of civilians from the Sunni Muslim majority.

Some rebel groups, which have helped escalate what began as popular demonstrations for democracy into what is approaching a civil war, have lost faith in any ceasefire calls and are calling for more foreign arms and other support.

Western leaders, wary of new military engagements in the Muslim world and especially of the explosively complex ethnic and religious mix that Syria represents, have offered sympathy but show no appetite for taking on Dr Assad's redoubtable armed forces, which can call on Iran and Russia for supplies.