- Associated Press - Thursday, June 7, 2012

BEIRUT — Unarmed U.N. monitors came under fire Thursday, as they tried to reach the scene of the latest mass killing in Syria, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said. Activists accused government forces of killing nearly 80 people, including women and children who were shot, hacked to death and burned in their homes.

The reports came just weeks after more than 100 people were killed in one day in a cluster of villages known as Houla in central Homs province, many of them 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 brought international outrage and a coordinated expulsion of Syrian diplomats from world capitals.

In New York, Mr. Ban told the U.N. General Assembly that the monitors “were shot at with small arms” as they tried to reach Mazraat al-Qubair, a farming area in the central Hama province. The group was denied access. By nightfall, the U.N. observers had not managed to visit the village, said spokesman Kieran Dwyer.

No observers were injured and it was not clear who was behind the shooting, the U.N. said.

Syria denied that its forces committed the mass killing in Mazraat al-Qubair on Wednesday, dismissing the claims as “absolutely baseless.” The regime blamed the violence on terrorists who are trying to provoke foreign military intervention to topple Mr. Assad. A fuller picture is unlikely to emerge before U.N. observers can enter the rural village.

A resident of Mazraat al-Qubair said troops shelled the area for five hours Wednesday before government-aligned militiamen known as shabiha entered the area, “killing and hacking everyone they could find.”

Leith Al-Hamwy told the Associated Press by telephone that he survived by hiding in an olive grove about 800 yards from the farms as the killings were taking place. But he said his mother and six siblings, the youngest 10-year-old twins, were killed.

“When I came out of hiding and went inside the houses, I saw bodies everywhere. Entire families either shot or killed with sharp sticks and knives,” he said.

Mr. al-Hamwy said the gunmen set his family home on fire and his family burned to death. Around 80 people in total died, he said, many of them children, and 18 homes were either destroyed by the shelling or burned down.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton condemned the Syrian government.

“The regime-sponsored violence that we witnessed again in Hama yesterday is simply unconscionable,” she said Thursday on a visit to Turkey. “Assad has doubled down on his brutality and duplicity, and Syria will not, cannot be peaceful, stable or certainly democratic until Assad goes.”

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