Saturday, February 24, 2018

U.N. observation team sees massacre site in Syrian village

BEIRUT — U.N. observers could smell the stench of burned corpses Friday and saw body parts around a Syrian farming hamlet that was the site of a massacre this week in which nearly 80 men, women and children were reported slain. The scene held evidence of a "horrific crime," a U.N. spokesman said.

The observers were finally able to get inside the deserted village of Mazraat al-Qubair after being blocked by government troops and residents, and coming under small arms fire Thursday, a day after the slayings were first reported.

In central Damascus, rebels brazenly battled government security forces in the heart of the capital Friday for the first time, witnesses said, and explosions echoed for hours. Government artillery repeatedly pounded the central city of Homs and troops tried to storm it from three sides.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with international envoy Kofi Annan in Washington to discuss how to salvage his faltering plan to end 15 months of bloodshed in Syria. Western nations blame President Bashar Assad for the violent crackdown on anti-government protests that grew out of the Arab Spring.

The U.N. team was the first independent group to arrive in Mazraat al-Qubair. Opposition activists and Syrian government officials blamed each other for the killings and differed about the number of dead.

Activists said that up to 78 people, including women and children, were killed, saying pro-government militiamen known as "shabiha" were responsible. A government statement on the state-run news agency SANA said "an armed terrorist group" killed nine women and children before Hama authorities were called and killed the attackers.

The U.N. supervision mission released a statement later Friday saying that armored vehicle tracks were visible in the area and some homes had been damaged by rockets and grenades. Inside some of the houses, blood was visible across the walls and the floors, the statement said.

Activists said the Sunni hamlet is surrounded by Alawite villages. Alawites are an offshoot of Shiite Islam and Assad is a member of the sect, while the opposition is dominated by Sunnis.

The United States condemned Assad over the killings, saying he has "doubled down on his brutality and duplicity."

The violence followed another mass killing last month in a string of villages known as Houla, where 100 people including many women and children were also shot and stabbed to death. The opposition and the regime blamed each other for the Houla massacre.

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