BEIRUT/UNITED NATIONS: UN monitors came under fire on Thursday and were prevented from reaching a village where forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were reported to have massacred at least 78 civilians, UN officials said.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the reported events in Mazraat al-Qubeir as "unspeakable barbarity," while the White House condemned the "outrageous targeted killings of civilians" and again called on other countries to halt support for Assad.
Opposition activists said up to 40 women and children were among those killed in the Sunni Muslim village near Hama on Wednesday, posting film on the Internet of bloodied or charred bodies.
"There was smoke rising from the buildings and a horrible smell of human flesh burning," said a Mazraat al-Qubeir resident who told how he had watched Syrian troops and "shabbiha" gunmen attack his village as he hid in his family's olive grove.
"It was like a ghost town," he told Reuters by telephone, asking not to be identified because he feared for his safety.
"After the shabbiha and tanks left, the first thing I did was run to my house. It was burned. All seven people from my house were killed. I saw bodies on the stairs, the bathroom and bedroom. They were all burned," the witness said.
The latest killings, less than two weeks after 108 men, women and children were slain in the town of Houla, piled pressure on world powers to halt the carnage in Syria, but they have been paralyzed by rifts pitting Western and most Arab states against Assad's defenders in Russia, China and Iran.
Ban, addressing a special UN General Assembly session on the crisis, again urged Assad to implement international envoy Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan immediately.
He said UN monitors, in Syria to check compliance with a truce declared by Annan on April 12 but never implemented, had come under small-arms fire on their way to Mazraat al-Qubeir.
There was no mention of any of the monitors being injured.
The chief of the monitoring mission, General Robert Mood, said Syrian troops and civilians had barred the team, stopping them at checkpoints and turning them back.
"They are going back to their base in Hama and they will try again tomorrow morning," spokeswoman Sausan Ghosheh said.
A Syrian official denied reports from the village, telling the state news agency that residents had asked security forces for help after "terrorists" killed nine women and children.
Assad, who has yet to comment on Wednesday's violence, decried the Houla killings as "monstrous" and denied his forces were responsible.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the latest reported massacre as unconscionable and again demanded that Assad step down and leave Syria. "We are disgusted by what we are seeing," she said during a visit to Istanbul.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters there was evidence of "escalating criminality" by pro-government forces in Syria.
"Syria is clearly on the edge ... of deeper violence, of deep sectarian violence; village against village, pro-government militias against opposition areas and of looking more like Bosnia in the 1990s than of Libya last year," he said.
Clinton said the United States was willing to work with all UN Security Council members, including Russia, on a conference on Syria's political future, but made clear that Assad must go and his government be replaced with a democratic one.
Annan, the UN-Arab League envoy for Syria, was due to brief the Security Council at closed-door talks in New York on Thursday.
A senior Russian diplomat said Moscow would accept a Yemen-style power transition in Syria if it were decided by the people, referring to a deal under which Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down in February after a year of unrest.
"The Yemen scenario was discussed by the Yemenis themselves. If this scenario is discussed by Syrians themselves and is adopted by them, we are not against it," Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said, according to the Interfax news agency.
Video purportedly from Mazraat al-Qubeir showed the bodies of at least a dozen women and children wrapped in blankets or white shrouds, as well as the remains of burned corpses.
"These are the children of the Mazraat al-Qubeir massacre ... Look, you Arabs and Muslims, is this a terrorist?" asks the cameraman, focusing on a dead infant's face. "This woman was a shepherd, and this was a schoolgirl."
BURNED BEYOND RECOGNITION
A Hama-based activist using the name Abu Ghazi listed more than 50 names of victims, many from the al-Yateem family, but said some burned bodies could not be identified. The bodies of between 25 and 30 men were taken away by the killers, he said.
Shabbiha, drawn mostly from Assad's minority Alawite sect that is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, have been blamed for the killings of civilians from the Sunni Muslim majority. That has raised fears of an Iraq-style sectarian bloodbath and worsened tensions between Shi'ite Iran and mainly Sunni-led Arab states.
Events in Syria's 15-month-old uprising are difficult to verify due to tight state curbs on international media access.
UN diplomats said they expected Annan to present the Security Council with a new proposal to rescue his failing peace plan - a "contact group" of world powers and regional ones like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and Iran, which is an ally of Syria.
Rebel groups in Syria say they are no longer bound by Annan's truce plan and want foreign weapons and other support.
Western leaders, wary of new military engagements in the Muslim world, have offered sympathy but shown no appetite for taking on Assad's military, supplied by Russia and Iran.
Annan sees his proposed forum as a way to break a deadlock among the five permanent members of the Security Council, where Russia and China have twice vetoed resolutions critical of Syria that were backed by the United States, Britain and France.
It would seek to map out a political transition under which Assad would leave office ahead of free elections, envoys said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday proposed an international meeting on Syria that would include the prime candidates for Annan's proposed contact group, including Iran.
Clinton reacted coolly to that idea, accusing Iran of "stage-managing" Syria's repression of its opponents in which the United Nations says more than 10,000 people have been killed.
Britain's Hague told reporters the Annan plan had failed so far but was not dead yet.
"Russia has important leverage over the Syrian regime and if all the members of the Security Council and the whole Arab World increased the pressure on the Assad regime to implement that plan, then it is still possible to do so," Hague said.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said it was important to involve Russia in peace efforts on Syria, saying the conflict there could ignite a regional conflagration.
"Assad's regime must know there is no protective hand over these atrocities," he said in Istanbul on Thursday.
Leaders of a bloc grouping China, Russia and Central Asian states called for dialogue to resolve the Syria conflict, rather than any firmer action by the Security Council.
France said it would host a conference of the "Friends of Syria" - countries hostile to Assad - on July 6.