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Syrian activists report wave of violence in Hama province

Syrian opposition activists reported a mass killing of villagers by pro-government militiamen and security forces on Wednesday — if verified, the fourth massacre in less than two weeks — threatening to inject a new surge of angry momentum into the growing international effort to isolate President Bashar Assad and remove him from power.

The accounts of the mass killing, in the village of Qubeir in central Hama province, could not be independently corroborated, and U.N. monitors in Syria could not immediately gain access to the site. The accounts said that as many as 78 civilians were killed, half of them women and children, including 35 members of one family. Some were burned and stabbed.

The killings were reported as representatives of more than 55 countries pressing for Assad's resignation threatened to sharply expand their financial pressure on his government at a meeting in Washington sponsored by the U.S. Treasury, and as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled to Turkey, an outspoken critic of Syria, for further talks on how to quickly reach a solution to the Syria crisis that would depose Assad.

A senior Western official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the New York Times that Clinton was sending Fred Hof, a special Middle East envoy from the State Department, to Moscow today to assess whether Russia and the United States could achieve a common vision on a post-Assad political transition in Syria. Russia, which has been Assad's most powerful foreign backer, has repeatedly opposed outside intervention in the Syrian conflict but has recently suggested it is not opposed to new leadership in Syria, its most important ally in the Middle East.

If the Qubeir massacre accounts are confirmed, they are likely to place enormous new pressure on Kofi Annan, the joint special envoy to Syria from the United Nations and the Arab League.

Assad appoints

new prime minister

Syrian President Bashar Assad appointed a loyalist as prime minister on Wednesday as he battles a 15-month uprising against his rule that has grown increasingly violent, the government said. Riad Farid Hijab, a member of the ruling Baath Party and the former agriculture minister, will form a new government following last month's parliamentary elections. Assad touted the May 7 vote as a milestone in promised political reforms. The opposition boycotted the vote, charging it was orchestrated by the regime to strengthen Assad's grip on power. Parliament is considered little more than a rubber stamp in Syria.

Fighting yields no control over town

Five days of fighting over Kafer Zaita in northern Syria came to an ignominious end Wednesday, with the town devastated but controlled by neither the government nor the rebels. Rebels said the army started the fighting by shelling the town from a command post in retaliation for a visit earlier by a U.N. monitoring team based in the city of Hama. Danish Lt. Col. Peter Dahl, the head of the Hama-based U.N. team, said that he and other monitors had attempted to establish an outpost to observe the battle. But their plans were disrupted when fire from a Syrian tank disabled one of his two vehicles.

Walters sorry for helping Assad aide

Television journalist Barbara Walters has apologized for trying to help a former aide to Syria's president land a job or get into college in the United States. The ABC veteran acknowledged the conflict in trying to help Sheherazad Jaafari, daughter of the Syrian ambassador to the United States and a one-time press aide to Assad. Jaafari helped Walters land an interview with Assad. Walters said in a statement issued Tuesday she rejected Jaafari's later request for a job at ABC News. But she said she contacted people on Jaafari's behalf and "I regret that."

Times wires

Syrian activists report wave of violence in Hama province 06/06/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 6, 2012 11:33pm]
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