(CBS News) A "smell of death in the air" pervades areas of the Syrian village where the latest alleged mass killing in the country took place, CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reports.
(At left, listen Palmer desribe what she saw in the village to CBS Radio News)
Palmer traveled with U.N. observers Friday to the village of al-Qubeir, where the opposition says regime forces massacred scores of people on Wednesday.
"There are no bodies here," Palmer told CBS Radio News. "They've all been buried, either in this village or in the villages around. A man I spoke to who had helped bury the bodies said that the security forces showed up after the massacre and threatened the people that all the bodies had to be buried by the time anybody from the outside world came in."
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In total, three teams -- from Damascus, Hama and Homs -- accessed the village in 11 vehicles. Upon arrival, people from nearby villages approached Palmer and the U.N. monitors to describe what they saw and heard. These witnesses weren't in the village during the attack, watching from nearby hillsides or farms for survival, but they consistently described what happened in al-Qubeir.
Their accounts portray a two-pronged attack, starting with heavy bombardment from some sort of large artillery followed by a ground attack carried out by pro-government militiamen, known as shabiha.
"There are, apparently, some people who did escape alive, but they have gone to neighboring villages," said Palmer. "They didn't stick around in the center of the destruction, but I must say that most of these buildings are so destroyed that they're uninhabitable. They've been blown-up. They're cracked and broken and scorched, you know, covered with burn marks and bloodied material and bedding."
The residents said 78 people died as far as they could tell, of which around 20 were children.
"One of the houses that was particularly badly burned and bombed had been used to store 20 bodies until they could be moved in great piles of bloodied and torched pillowcases and blankets, and the whole place just reeked of death," said Palmer. "There was one dead and bloated cow but apart from that no signs of life."
The area residents directed Palmer to one room in particular where they said children were shot to death. Large blood stains were visible on the floor, and the wall was dented with bullet marks.
The witnesses told Palmer of finding four family members who sought refuge in a mosque and were executed by shabiha inside the house of worship.
"Then their bodies were burned inside the mosque," said Palmer. "Certainly there were extensive scorch marks in the mosque, and the holy books were burned, which is a real desecration in Muslim villages."
On Thursday, a contingent of U.N. staff was blocked from the village by Syrian military personnel at checkpoints and by mobs of angry locals chanting slogans in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad and warning the observers that they would be met with violence if they entered al-Qubeir. Members of the U.N. mission told Palmer that some observers were detained for hours Thursday by state forces.
Gen. Robert Mood, the head of the observer mission, said Thursday that some U.N. staff have come under fire this week in Syria as they try to carry out their work. There have been no reported casualties among the U.N. staff.
Riding in the 11 armored vehicles Friday were about 20 observers and 10 additional U.N. staff, Palmer said. The observers do not carry weapons.
On Thursday night, international envoy Kofi Annan pinned the lion's share of the blame on Assad's regime for letting his six-point peace plan whither amid continuing bloodshed. Annan told the U.N. Security Council there must be "consequences" for that obstruction to his cease-fire plan -- a clear hint that further sanctions should be considered.
The al-Qubeir massacre -- which has yet to be independently confirmed -- was the third significant discovery of bodies in about a week. In each case, opposition groups say a combination of government regular forces and shabiha were behind the deaths.
Assad's regime, however, dismisses any culpability, claiming that "terrorists" -- a word the government uses to describe opposition members -- are behind the deaths. In al-Qubeir, the government says Syrian soldiers entered the village on Wednesday to find nine civilian bodies already dead, their bodies burned.
Even with U.N. monitors accessing the village, the vastly different accounts of what happened in al-Qubeir coming from the regime and the opposition cannot be reconciled. Questions remain about what may have taken place in the village between the incident and the arrival of those first impartial eyes. For two days, only the Syrian government had access to al-Qubeir.
Meanwhile, videos posted online Friday showed what activist groups claim was renewed shelling by state forces in the already-battered central city of Homs. The reports could not be immediately confirmed. Homs, parts of which have been held by rebel forces for months, has seen some of the worst violence in the 15-month-old Syrian uprising.