Beirut: UN observers on Friday visited the village of Mazraat al-Qubair in Syria, scene of a massacre reported on Wednesday in which nearly 80 men, women and children were believed to have been slained.
As the UN team arrived in the deserted village, it could smell the stench of burned corpses and saw body parts scattered around the Syrian farming hamlet. The scene held evidence of a "horrific crime”, a UN spokeswoman said.
The observers were finally able to get inside the village of Mazraat al-Qubair after being blocked by government troops and residents, and coming under small arms fire on Thursday, a day after the slayings were first reported.
In central Damascus, rebels brazenly battled government security forces in the heart of the capital on 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.
US 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 UN team was the first independent group to arrive in Mazraat al-Qubair, a village of about 160 people in central Hama province. 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 shot, hacked and burned to death, 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.
Sausan Ghosheh, a spokeswoman for the UN observers, said residents` accounts of the mass killing were "conflicting”, and that they needed to cross check the names of the missing and dead with those supplied by nearby villagers. Mazraat al-Qubair itself was "empty of the local inhabitants”, she said.
"You can smell the burnt smell of the dead bodies," Ghosheh said. "You could also see body parts in and around the village."
The UN supervision mission released a statement later Friday saying that armoured 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.
Ghosheh said she saw two homes damaged by shells and bullets. She spoke of burned bodies found in a house, but did not elaborate and was not clear whether the UN team saw them.
She told the BBC: "We can say that there was definitely a horrific crime that was committed. The scale is still not clear to me."
A BBC correspondent travelling with the UN observers described the hamlet as an "appalling scene" of burned-out houses and gore.
"There are pieces of human flesh lying around the room, there is a big pile of congealed blood in the corner, there`s a tablecloth that still has the pieces of someone`s brain attached to the side of it," said the correspondent, Paul Danahar.
"They killed the people, they killed the livestock, they left nothing in the village alive," he added.
The UN observers also visited a cemetery where some of the dead were buried, according to an activist in Mazraat al-Qubair.
Activists said the Sunni hamlet is surrounded by Alawite villages. Alawites are an offshoot of Shi’ite 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.
In April, the UN said more than 9,000 people have been killed since the crisis began in March 2011, but it has been unable to update its estimate since and the daily bloodshed has continued in past weeks. Activists put the number of dead at about 13,000.
Also on Friday, the Committee to Protect Journalists said five citizen journalists documenting the unrest in Syria were killed in a two-day period at the end of May.
(With Agency inputs)