U.N. probe in Syria thwarted; Kofi Annan concedes peace plan ignored

U.N. observers in Syria trying to reach the scene of an alleged massacre near the central city of Hama came under small-arms fire and were turned away by government troops and civilians, officials of the world body reported
TRIPOLI, Lebanon -- U.N. observers in Syria trying to reach the scene of an alleged massacre near the central city of Hama came under small-arms fire and were turned away by government troops and civilians, officials of the world body reported Thursday.

The thwarting of outside investigation of the latest reported massacre in the violence-wracked country underscored the failure of a joint U.N.-Arab League peace plan, which even its author, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, conceded Thursday "is not being implemented" and that firmer action may be needed.

At a meeting on the Syrian crisis at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Annan and more than a dozen other envoys expressed frustration with Syrians' refusal to comply with the six-point peace plan, with many of the ambassadors urging sanctions on the government and a more robust presence of armed U.N. peacekeepers on the ground.

"We cannot allow mass killing to become part of everyday reality in Syria," Annan told the 193-nation assembly. "The crisis is escalating. The violence is getting worse. The abuses are continuing. The country is becoming more polarized and more radicalized. And Syria's immediate neighbors are increasingly worried about the threat of spillover."

Annan and envoys from the United States, the European Union and the Arab League lamented reports of another massacre of civilians as evidence that the violence in Syria was clearly beyond the international community's power to control with the presence of only 300 unarmed observers. 

"Clearly, the time has come to determine what more can be done to secure implementation of the plan -- and/or what other options exist to address the crisis," Annan said, urging unity among the Security Council members, who were meeting behind closed doors to debate what actions should be taken.

The U.N. ambassadors of Russia and China reiterated at the General Assembly meeting that they remain committed to the Annan peace plan as the most appropriate role for the international community. Russian envoy Vitaly Churkin upbraided Western delegates for casting blame on Syrian President Bashar Assad and failing to note that armed Syrian rebels have also been violating the cease-fire declared almost two months ago.

At a meeting of Central Asian nations in Beijing on Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov proposed convening a new forum of world powers to tackle the Syrian crisis, including representatives of the five permanent members of the Security Council, the European Union, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Turkey and Iran.

"It's essential to call a meeting of states that have real influence over the various opposition groups," Lavrov told reporters in Beijing.

The suggestion of including Iran, one of Assad's closest allies, drew immediate scorn from the United States and other Western countries as unlikely to lead to any effective action.

After Arab media reports of at least 78 killed in the village of Mazraat al-Qubeir on Wednesday, Syrian opposition activists blamed security forces loyal to Assad for the latest civilian deaths. Syrian authorities denied responsibility.

In a statement Thursday, the U.N. observer mission said both Syrian troops and civilians were impeding their efforts to reach the reported massacre scene. The observers also said they were told they may be "at risk" if they entered the village, a veiled threat likely intended to thwart any independent assessment of who was behind the killings.

At the General Assembly session, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reported that monitors "were shot at with small arms" while trying to reach Mazraat al-Qubeir early Thursday. The U.N. team was still trying to reach the site, said the statement by observer mission chief Maj. Gen. Robert Mood of Norway.

The U.N. mission "is concerned about the restriction imposed on its movement as it will impede our ability to monitor, observe and report," the general said.

The reported massacre in the province of Hama comes less than two weeks after more than 100 people, mostly women and children, were killed in the town of Houla. That incident drew worldwide condemnation of Assad's government. Syrian officials blamed the Houla killings on "armed groups" fighting with the opposition.

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-- Patrick J. McDonnell in Tripoli and Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles

Photo: Anti-regime protesters in Syria's Idlib province on Thursday hoist a banner that reads in Arabic "Al-Qubeir massacre challenges the world's humanity." They were part of a demonstration against the latest reported civilian killings, which they blame on Syrian government loyalists. Credit: Edlib News Network / Associated Press

 
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