U.N. monitors try again to reach Syria massacre site

BEIRUT Fri Jun 8, 2012 5:31am EDT

BEIRUT (Reuters) - United Nations monitors seeking to reach the site of a reported massacre in Syria sent reinforcements to the area on Friday, after they were turned back and shot at a day earlier.

A member of the U.N. observer mission said a second team from the capital Damascus was heading to the tiny village of Mazraat al-Qubeir, where opposition activists said 78 people were shot, stabbed or burned to death on Wednesday.

Some 300 U.N. observers are in Syria to monitor a never implemented ceasefire between President Bashar al-Assad's forces and rebels that was declared by envoy Kofi Annan on April 12.

Syria's 15-month-old revolt has grown increasingly bloody. If confirmed, the killings in Mazraat al-Qubeir would be the second massacre within two weeks.

U.N. monitors previously visited the town of Houla where security forces and pro-Assad militia men killed 108 people, nearly half of them children, on May 25.

The Syrian government condemned the killings in Houla and Mazraat al-Qubeir but said "terrorists" were behind the attacks.

U.N. monitors tried to enter Mazraat al-Qubeir, a hamlet 20 km (13 miles) northwest of the city of Hama, on Thursday but were stopped at army checkpoints and by civilians in the area.

One U.N. observer told Reuters by telephone that villagers had surrounded the team's cars to block their passage, but said their motives were not clear.

Activists say army tanks shelled Mazraat al-Qubeir and then stormed in with plainclothes gunmen, killing more than half of the village's 150 residents and burning many of their bodies.

Events on the ground are hard to verify because the government restricts access to international media.

Syrian state television, apparently reporting from Mazraat al-Qubeir, interviewed several people who covered their faces and said 500 rebels had attacked the hamlet.

"They slaughtered men, women and children, this is horrible," a woman swathed in black shouted.

Syria TV showed footage of a concrete building gashed with bullet holes and what appeared to be mortar or shell fire.

U.N. monitors said they hoped to enter the village later on Friday, but would not comment on whether they had received any assurances of safe passage from the authorities.

(Reporting by Erika Solomon; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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