Syria denies UN observers access to alleged massacre site
UN observers were denied access to the Syrian village of Mazraat al-Qubeir, where opposition activists and UN officials say dozens were murdered on Thursday.
Hama, Syria — Allegations of a fresh massacre near the Syrian city of Hama, on the heels of last month’s massacre in Houla, are testing the resolve and the usefulness of the UN observer mission to Syria.
The UN observers, some of whom are based in Hama, tried to gain access to the hamlet of Mazraat al-Qubeir today after Syrian opposition sources claimed that as many as 100 people, many of them women and children, were killed there on Thursday. The halls of the UN in New York rang out with condemnation of the latest massacre today, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon saying reports from Mazraat al-Qubeir were "shocking and sickening."
But the unarmed UN observer mission on the ground, touted by UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan as a key part of a six-point plan to end the war, were prevented from reaching the village to investigate by both the Syrian army and loyalist civilians in the area. “This clearly impedes our ability to observe, monitor and report,” said Sausan Ghosheh, a spokesperson for the UN observers’ mission.
According to the Local Coordination Committees, an umbrella group for the internal opposition in Syria, at least 78 people were killed in the village, roughly half the population.
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Among them were 40 women and children; most of them came from the same family.
“These are poor people, farmers, who were completely outside of the conflict,” LLC member Jaber Zayen said from Sweden. “The regime is clearly trying to pit civilians against civilians in an attempt to set off a sectarian war.”
As in Houla, the opposition says the army first surrounded al-Qubeir, and then sent in the so-called shabiha, or ghosts, pro-government militias composed of civilians from the surrounding Alawite villages. The Alawite, an off-shoot of Shia Islam, are a minority in Syria, but they have much of the power. The uprising stems mainly from within the Sunni majority.
Opposition sources claim that some of the bodies were tied to the backs of cars and dragged through neighboring Alawite villages.
In Houla, the UN observers were able to establish that the massacre had indeed occurred, though not who was to blame for the massacre.
The government has blamed "terrorists" in both cases. In the case of Al-Qubeir, the official SANA press agency said nine women and children had been killed. But unlike Houla, where the observers were able to get access fairly quickly, there has been no independent verification in Al-Qubeir.
On Thursday afternoon, the commander of the UN observers’ mission, Gen. Robert Mood, put out an unusually strongly-worded statement, complaining that his observers were "being stopped at Syrian Army checkpoints and in some cases turned back" and that "we are receiving information from residents of the area that the safety of our observers is at risk if we enter village of Mazraat al-Qubeir."
Journalists were also hindered in their attempts to reach Al-Qubeir. Only a handful of foreign journalists are currently in Syria, mostly on 7-day visas. The Information Ministry has told them that they are not allowed to travel outside Damascus without the UN observers.
But the observers are often based in places like Hama and Homs, so connecting with them requires disregarding the direct orders of the Information Ministry. This is in itself a violation of UN envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan to which Syria has agreed, one of which is freedom of movement for the media.
Journalists who traveled to Hama yesterday were stopped at the first checkpoint in the city, and told to return to the capital. The alleged massacre at Al-Qubeir came on the same day that the UN Security Council was meeting behind closed doors to discuss the Syria situation.
The Security Council is divided between its Western members, who favor further sanctions against Syria, and Russia and China, who have vetoed two resolutions aiming to increase pressure on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Mr. Annan asked the council members to warn the Syrian regime of “clear consequences” if M. Assad does not comply with his six-point plan, AFP reported. “The longer we wait, the darker the future looks for Syria,” Annan told them.