UN team sifts site of alleged massacre


UNITED NATIONS monitors yesterday found neither living nor dead in the Syrian hamlet of Qubair where pro-government forces stand accused of massacring 78 of the 130 villagers on Wednesday. BBC journalist Paul Danahar, who accompanied the three teams of monitors, reported seeing a fire-gutted house where the stench of burning flesh hung in the air; brain matter and blood in another home; and dead livestock.

He said whoever committed the outrage had followed a “scorched-earth policy” and had made an attempt to cover up the slaughter.

UN monitors observed that the tarmac road had been scored by tracked vehicles, suggesting tanks or armoured personnel carriers, while a man from a nearby village claimed bodies had been taken away in a pick-up truck.

The government has denied culpability and argued that the killings were carried out by rebels seeking to oust president Bashar al-Assad.

Teams dispatched on Thursday were blocked when attempting to reach the hamlet, inhabited by poor Sunni farming families said to be fearful as it is claimed the killings were carried out by loyalist shabbiha militiamen from nearby heterodox Shia Alawite villages.

Mission chief Norwegian general Robert Mood said monitors had been fired on this week while carrying out their work although no casualties had been reported.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council that heavy weapons, armour-piercing munitions and surveillance drones have been used by the government to compel monitors to pull back from areas where troops had staged operations. Monitors had also been “ignored” when seeking to halt tank attacks.

Opposition activists reported heavy shelling of the rebel-held Khaldiyeh neighbourhood of Homs. They said troops appeared to be preparing to mount an assault on Khaldiyeh, which has been out of government control since last year. Anti-government demonstrations were reported in many areas. A car bomb exploded near Damascus, killing three security officers, and another car bomb at a police post in Idlib was said to have killed five people.

Bomb blasts occurred in three Damascus neighbourhoods, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding that two soldiers were killed in clashes in a mountainous area where “dozens of soldiers” had been killed “over the past 72 hours”.

Senior US state department official Fred Hof held talks with Russian deputy foreign ministers Gennady Gatilov and Mikhail Bogdanov with the aim of persuading Moscow to exert its influence in Damascus to effect regime change in Syria. However, the Russian foreign ministry called for the “mobilisation of international support” for implementation of the plan put forward by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

Russia has pressed the western and Arab powers backing the rebels to call on them to lay down their arms and negotiate with the government. Moscow and China vehemently oppose foreign intervention in Syria.

In a rare comment on the situation, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said Beijing “strongly condemns” the killings of civilians and urges the indictment of the perpetrators.

He called on both sides to end the violence and comply with the Annan plan. Mr Liu did not answer repeated questions about whether China endorses Mr Annan’s call for substantial pressure, but said both sides in Syria should stop the fighting.

“I think the Syrian government and opposition should both truly shoulder their responsibility and cease fire and halt violence,” Mr Liu told a daily news briefing.

“Both sides have this responsibility because they both undertook this commitment. In the current circumstances, we believe that the importance of envoy Annan’s mediation efforts has not diminished but rather increased . . . The support of all sides for the envoy Annan should strengthen rather than weaken,” he said.