Syria's security forces this morning blocked U.N. monitors from entering the village of Mazraat al-Qubeir to investigate claims that pro-government militias massacred dozens of civilians there, including women and children.
Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, the Norwegian officer who heads the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria, issued a statement from Damascus this morning saying that a team of U.N. observers were "being stopped at Syrian Army checkpoints and in some cases turned back." He said that U.N. patrols were also being stopped by civilians in the area.
The U.N. standoff with Syrian authorities came hours before special envoy, Kofi Annan, is scheduled to brief the U.N. General Assembly and the U.N. Security Council on his stalled efforts to end the violence and press the Syrian government and the opposition to begin talks on a political transition in the country.
It is likely to strengthen the case of the United States and its Western and Arab partners to increase political pressure on President Bashar al-Assad through the threat of stepped up sanctions. So far, China and Russia have vigorously opposed the imposition of U.N. sanctions on Damascus, saying the government and opposition need to come willingly to peace talks.
Frustrated by diplomatic deadlock in Damascus, Annan is expected to outline a plan to establish a new negotiating bloc -- or contact group -- including representatives of the United States, Britain, France, Iran, Russia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. The plan, which was detailed in a story by David Ignatius in the Washington Post, calls on the contact group to produce a transitional road map, including new presidential election, a parliamentary vote, and the drafting of a new constitution.
The debate over a new diplomatic strategy for Syria is unfolding at a time when reports of mass killings in Syria have been on the rise. On Wednesday, pro-government militias may have slaughtered dozens of civilians in the village of Mazraat al-Qubeir, according to unconfirmed reports. The report follows other large-scale killings, including the massacre of more than 100 people in the village of Houla on May 25.
The U.N. mission, Mood said, "dispatched U.N. observers to Mazraat al-Qubeir early Thursday morning, to verify reports of large-scale killings in the village. The observers have not yet been able to reach the village."
Mood said that residents in the area have also warned the U.N. mission that "the safety of our observers is at risk if we enter the village of Mazraat al-Qubeir." Mood said he is concerned the restriction on the observers movement "will impede our ability to monitor, observe and report" on the violence in Syria. But he vowed to press on, saying that "despite these challenges, the observers are still trying to get into the village to try to establish the facts on the ground."
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.