THE smell of death lingers in the air in a Syrian village where women and children were reportedly massacred by militia loyal to president Bashar Assad, according to journalists and UN monitors who travelled there yesterday.
Following reports of the massacre in Mazraat al-Qubair, in the central Homs district, on Wednesday, UN observers were urged by Syrian activists to visit the area but were fired upon when they attempted to reach the site on Thursday.
Yesterday, accompanied by reporters, they visited a cemetery where some of the 78 reported victims were buried and then continued to the remote farming village where activists had said homes were shelled and residents, many of them women and children, were executed and burned.
Accompanying them was BBC journalist Paul Danahar, the broadcaster’s Middle East Bureau Chief, who described horrifying scenes using Twitter.
“The first house had been gutted by fire but the stench of burnt flesh still hung heavy in the air. The scene in the next house was even worse. Blood was in pools around the room. Pieces of flesh lay among the scattered possessions.
“Butchering the people didn’t satisfy the blood lust of the attackers so they killed the livestock too. Their carcasses rotting in the sun.”
There were no signs of the bodies, however, and reporters said UN officials had noted tracks said to have come from military vehicles.
In a Press conference last night, UN spokeswoman Sausan Ghosheh confirmed the reports. “You can smell the burnt smell of the dead bodies. You could also see body parts in and around the village.”
But Ms Ghosheh said residents’ testimonies was “conflicting,” and they would need to cross check the names of the missing and dead with those supplied by nearby villagers. She said the village of Mazraat al-Qubair itself was “empty of the local inhabitants.”
She added the scenes that immediately struck her were two homes damaged by shells and bullets. One home had burnt bodies inside.
The reported killings in Mazraat al-Qubair would be the fourth such mass killing of civilians in Syria in the past two weeks. The deadliest took place last month in a string of villages known as Houla, where 100 people were killed. The opposition and the regime blamed each other for the Houla massacre.
The chilling confirmation of the latest massacre came as explosions echoed over Damascus as Syrian troops clashed with rebels in some of the heaviest fighting yet in the capital in the 15-month uprising against President Bashar Assad. Troops also unleashed a heavy assault to retake a rebel-held neighbourhood in a central flashpoint city, blasting it with heavy bombardment.
The fighting in Damascus erupted in the restive district of Kfar Souseh, where the night before, armed rebels took part in a large anti-government rally in the same district, witnesses said – a rare and bold public appearance by the fighters in the capital.
In the central city of Homs, one of the main battlegrounds of the uprising, regime troops yesterday were trying to advance into the opposition-held district of Khaldiyeh from three sides, battling with armed rebels trying to stop them, activist Tarek Badrakhan said.
“This is the worst shelling we’ve had since the start of the revolution,” he said, a shell exploding in the background as he spoke.
Shells were said to be hitting the neighbourhood at a rate of five to 10 a minute.
The escalation in violence came after UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon warned an all-out civil war was a real possibility.
Speaking after a meeting of the UN Security Council in New York late on Thursday, he underlined the need for urgency in defusing the situation.
“Syria can quickly go from a tipping point to a breaking point. The danger of full-scale civil war is imminent and real, with catastrophic consequences for Syria and the region.”