U.N. observers came under fire Thursday as they tried to reach the site of the latest reported mass killing in Syria — about 80 people, including women and children who were shot or stabbed. The deaths added urgency to diplomatic efforts to end the escalating bloodshed.
As reports emerged of what would be the fourth such mass slaying of civilians in Syria in the last two weeks, the United States condemned President Bashar Assad, saying he has "doubled down on his brutality and duplicity."
International envoy Kofi Annan warned Thursday that Syria is drifting toward full-blown civil war and blamed the failure of his peace plan primarily on Assad's government. He urged the divided U.N. Security Council to threaten "consequences" if Assad doesn't stop the violence.
"If things do not change, the future is likely to be one of brutal repression, massacres, sectarian violence, and even all-out civil war," Annan told the U.N. General Assembly in New York. "All Syrians will lose."
Adding to concern about the unarmed observers, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon told the Security Council that U.N. patrols in Syria have been regularly obstructed and in some cases deliberately targeted, citing examples where a heavy weapon, armor-piercing ammunition and a surveillance drone were used, a senior U.N. official said.
In a sign of increasing global concern at the escalating Syrian conflict, Annan, Ban and Arab League Secretary-General Nabil ElAraby addressed an open meeting of the U.N. General Assembly in the morning and spent three hours behind closed doors with the Security Council in the afternoon discussing how to get the Syrian government to implement the Annan plan.
"It is up to the Security Council to take action now," ElAraby told reporters.
The message from Arab nations is that the U.N.'s most powerful body should impose nonmilitary sanctions against Syria, which has been suspended from the organization, he said.
Ban, the U.N. secretary-general, echoed the sense of urgency.
"The three of us agree: Syria can quickly go from a tipping point to a breaking point. The danger of full-scale civil war is imminent and real, with catastrophic consequences for Syria and the region," Ban warned.
The latest violence centered on Mazraat al-Qubair, a small farming community of 160 people, mostly Bedouins, in central Hama province. Activists said the Sunni village is surrounded by Alawite villages. Alawites are an offshoot of Shiite Islam — Assad and his family are Alawites — while the opposition is dominated by Sunnis.
Syria's main opposition group in exile, the Syrian National Council, said 78 people were killed in Mazraat al-Qubair when government-aligned militiamen converged on the village from neighboring pro-regime villages. Some of the dead were shot in the head, and others were slain with knives, the SNC said.
"Women and children were burned inside their homes in al-Qubair," said Mousab Alhamadee, an activist based in Hama.
Syria denied the opposition claims as "absolutely baseless." The exact death toll and circumstances of the killings reported overnight in Mazraat al-Qubair were impossible to confirm.
One YouTube video purported to show the bodies of babies, children and two women wrapped in blankets and lined with frozen bottles of water to slow decomposition.
A government statement published on the state-run news agency SANA said "an armed terrorist group committed an appalling crime" in Mazraat al-Qubair, killing nine women and children. It said residents appealed for protection from Hama authorities, who went to the farm and stormed a hideout of the group and clashed with them.
The statement said all members of the armed group were killed in clashes.
Ban said U.N. observers were denied access to the scene in central Hama and "were shot at with small arms."
The observers were forced to turn back and were not injured, although one vehicle was hit and slightly damaged, said Kieran Dwyer, spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping department. They were not able to enter Mazraat al-Qubair, he added. It was not clear who was behind the shooting.
On May 25, more than 100 people were killed in one day in a cluster of villages known as Houla in central Homs province. 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.
On May 30, 13 bound corpses were found in Deir el-Zour province. On June 1, 11 workers were found shot to death near Qusair in Homs province.
The Houla massacre brought international outrage and a coordinated expulsion of Syrian diplomats from world capitals.
Ban called the latest reported mass killing "shocking and sickening," saying "each day seems to bring new additions to the grim catalog of atrocities."
The White House issued a strong condemnation.
"Assad's continued abdication of responsibility for these horrific acts has no credibility and only further underscores the illegitimate and immoral nature of his rule," press secretary Jay Carney said.