U.N.: Syria monitors shot at en route to death site

Updated at 1:02 p.m. ET

(CBS/AP) BEIRUT - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said unarmed U.N. monitors came under fire Thursday as they tried to reach the scene of the latest Syrian mass killing. Activists said government forces killed nearly 80 people, including women and children who were shot, hacked to death and burned in their homes.

The reports of mass killings came just weeks after more than 100 people were killed in one day in a cluster of villages known as Houla in central Homs province, many of them children and women gunned down in their homes. 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.

CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reports that the Assad regime claims Syrian soldiers entered the village and discovered nine people already dead - their bodies burned - in an abandoned building.

Palmer reports the killings are bound to play into the debate at the United Nations, where international envoy Kofi Annan was trying to convince the world that his peace plan for Syria wasn't a lost cause.

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The Houla massacre brought international outrage and a coordinated expulsion of Syrian diplomats from world capitals.

Ban told the U.N. General Assembly that the monitors "were shot at with small arms" as they tried to reach Mazraat al-Qubair, a farming area in the central Hama province. The group initially was denied access. He did not mention any casualties and it was not clear who was behind the shooting.

Annan had a grim assessment of the coming days and weeks in Syria.

"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 General Assembly. "All Syrians will lose."

Syria denied that its forces committed a massacre as "absolutely baseless" and blamed the violence on terrorists who are trying to provoke foreign military intervention to topple Assad.

A resident of Mazraat al-Qubair said troops shelled the area for five hours Wednesday before government-aligned militiamen known as shabiha entered the area, "killing and hacking everyone they could find."

Leith Al-Hamwy told The Associated Press by telephone that he survived by hiding in an olive grove about 800 yards from the farms as the killings were taking place. But he said his mother and six siblings, the youngest 10-year-old twins, did not.

"When I came out of hiding and went inside the houses, I saw bodies everywhere. Entire families either shot or killed with sharp sticks and knives," he said.

Al-Hamwy said the gunmen set his family home on fire and his family burned to death. Around 80 people in total died, he said, many of them children, and 18 homes were either destroyed by the shelling or burned down.

Syria's main opposition group in exile, the Syrian National Council, also 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 killed execution-style, others were slain with knives, the SNC said. It said 35 of the dead were from the same family and more than half of them were women and children.

The council told CBS News the incident strongly resembles what they say happened in Houla at the end of May - when 108 people were killed in shelling and house-to-house raids.

"Women and children were burned inside their homes in al-Qubair," said Mousab Alhamadee, an activist based in Hama.

Gen. Robert Mood, the head of the observers mission in Syria, said U.N. patrols headed to the village of were stopped at Syrian army checkpoints and in some cases turned back. He said some patrols were also stopped by civilians and added they had received information from residents of the area that the safety of observers was at risk if they entered the village.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton condemned the Syrian government.

"The regime-sponsored violence that we witnessed again in Hama yesterday is simply unconscionable," she said in Turkey. "Assad has doubled down on his brutality and duplicity, and Syria will not, cannot be peaceful, stable or certainly democratic until Assad goes."

The exact death toll and circumstances of the killings overnight in Mazraat al-Qubair were impossible to confirm. The violence is bound to reinforce the growing belief that a peace plan brokered by Kofi Annan is unraveling as the country spirals toward civil war.

Both Homs and Hama have been centers of opposition to Assad's rule during the 15-month uprising.

The Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights said it had compiled the names of at least 49 people who had died in the massacre. But Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the group which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said the circumstances of the killings were still unclear and called on U.N. observers to visit the area immediately.

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