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Massacre claims 80; Assad criticized; U.N. monitors targeted on way to Syria killings

U.N. observers were fired at Thursday as they tried to reach the site of the latest reported mass killing in Syria -- about 80 people, including women and children who were shot or stabbed. The deaths added urgency to diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed.

As reports emerged about what would be the fourth mass slaying of civilians in Syria in the last two weeks, the United States condemned President Bashar Assad, saying he has "doubled down on his brutality and duplicity."

On several occasions, U.N. patrols in Syria have been deliberately targeted with heavy weapons, armor-piercing ammunition and a surveillance drone, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council, according to a senior U.N. official. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because Thursday's council meeting was private, said Ban also reported repeated incidents of firing close to U.N. patrols, apparently to get them to withdraw.

International envoy Kofi Annan, whose Syrian peace plan brokered in April has not been implemented, warned against allowing "mass killings to become part of everyday reality 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 U.N. General Assembly in New York. "All Syrians will lose."

U.N. diplomats said Annan proposed that world powers and key regional players, including Iran, come up with a new strategy to end the 15-month conflict during the closed council meeting.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Annan noted the urgency of taking action to diffuse the situation.

Standing with Annan and League of Arab States Secretary General Nabil Elaraby, Ban echoed the sense of urgency:

"The three of us agree: 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."

Any proposal to resolve the situation, however, must be acceptable to Russia and China, which have protected their ally from past U.N. sanctions.

The latest violence centered on Mazraat al-Qubair, a small farming community of 160 people, mostly Bedouins, in central Hama province. Activists said the Sunni village is surrounded by Alawite villages. Alawites are an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Assad is a member of the sect, while the opposition is dominated by Sunnis.

A resident said troops shelled the area for five hours Wednesday before government-aligned militiamen known as "shabiha" entered the area, which is known to shelter army defectors, "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 took 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 would not give his exact location but said he was waiting for U.N. observers.

He said the gunmen set his family home on fire and his family burned to death, huddled in a concrete attic above their bathroom, where they stored food provisions. Around 80 people in total died, he said, many of them children. He said most of the village's 20 homes were either destroyed by the shelling or burned down.

"There's flesh of animals and humans scattered, the smell of smoke from burning houses and bodies," al-Hamwy said.

Syria called the opposition claims "absolutely baseless." The death toll and circumstances of the killings reported overnight in Mazraat al-Qubair were impossible to confirm.

One YouTube video purported to show the bodies of babies, children and two women wrapped in blankets and lined with frozen bottles of water to slow decomposition.

On May 25, 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.

On May 30, 13 bound corpses were found in Deir el-Zour province, while last Friday, 11 workers were found shot to death near the town of Qusair in Homs province.

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

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking in Turkey after meeting foreign ministers and envoys from 16 European, Turkish and Arab partners, cited a strategy that included Assad's eventual ouster and departure from Syria.

"Assad has doubled down on his brutality and duplicity, and Syria will not, cannot be peaceful, stable or certainly democratic until Assad goes," she said.