BEIRUT: U.N. monitors on Friday entered the Syrian hamlet of Mazraat al-Qubeir where up to 78 people were reported killed in cold blood two days earlier and an eyewitness described a scene of shredded and burnt flesh, making clear a "terrible crime" had occurred.
The alleged massacre on Wednesday has underlined how little outside powers, divided and pursuing their own interests in the Middle East, have been able to do to stop increasing carnage in the 15-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
A day after Syrian armed forces and villagers had turned them back, the U.N. team reached the farming settlement of Mazraat al-Qubeir and were confronted by an "appalling" spectacle, a BBC correspondent accompanying the monitors said.
"It is not hard to verify, as soon as you walk into the first house you are hit by the stench of burnt flesh," the BBC's Paul Danahar said. "You can see that a terrible crime has taken place, everything has been burnt, houses have been gutted, there is an RPG (that has) blown a hole at the side of the house.
"The most distressing scenes were at the house next door. I walked in and saw pieces of brains lying on the floor. There was a tablecloth covered in blood and flesh and someone had tried to mop the blood up by pushing it into the corner, but seems they had given up because there was so much of it around," he said.
Danahar's Twitter report added: "What we didn't find were any bodies of people. What we did find were tracks on the tarmac (that) the U.N. said looked like armoured personnel carriers or tanks."
Many Syrian civilians are fleeing their homes to escape widening fighting between security forces and rebels, the Red Cross said, while the outside world seems unable to craft an alternative to envoy Kofi Annan's failing peace plan.
"Some say that the plan may be dead," Annan said before meeting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington.
"Is the problem the plan or the problem is implementation?" he asked. "If it's implementation, how do we get action on that? And if it is the plan, what other options do we have?"
Activists say at least 78 people were shot, stabbed or burned alive in Mazraat al-Qubeir, a Sunni Muslim hamlet, by forces loyal to Assad, whose minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, has dominated Syria for decades.
Syrian authorities have condemned the killings in Mazraat al-Qubeir and another massacre of civilians in Houla two weeks ago, blaming them on "terrorists".
The conflict is becoming increasingly sectarian. Shabbiha militiamen from Assad's Shi'ite-rooted Alawite sect appear to be off the leash, targeting Sunni civilians almost regardless of their part in the uprising.
Opposition activists said those killed in Mazraat al-Qubeir had not previously been caught up in the conflict.
Some 300 U.N. observers are in Syria to monitor a truce between Assad's forces and rebels that Annan declared on April 12 but was never implemented.
Now reduced to observing the violence, they have already verified the massacre in Houla, a town where 108 men, women and children were slain on May 25. The U.N. peacekeeping chief said Syrian troops and pro-Assad militia were probably responsible.
As more and more civilians flee their homes to escape fighting, sick or wounded people are finding it hard to reach medical services or buy food, said a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva.
Protests and strife erupted across Syria on Friday.
A car bomb aimed at a bus carrying security men exploded in a Damascus suburb, killing at least two, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights watchdog said.
Another car bomb hit a police branch in the northwestern city of Idlib, killing at least five people, it said.
Syrian forces shelled and then tried to storm the rebel-held district of Khalidiya in the central city of Homs, the heart of the revolt against Assad, the British-based Observatory said.
Activists said 10 rockets a minute crashed into Khalidiya in one of the fierce bombardments to hit Homs. Videos posted on the Internet showed plumes of grey smoke rising from buildings.
Activist footage of protests said to be in the northern city of Aleppo showed crowds fleeing from tear gas and gunfire.
In Deraa, the southern birthplace of the uprising, Syrian forces pounded rebel hideouts in the rugged Luja area, after many soldiers had defected, activists and residents said.
Heavy gunfire erupted in the Damascus neighbourhood of Kfar Souseh after a loud Blast there, activists said.
"The Syrian people are bleeding," Ban said at the United Nations on Thursday, warning of an "imminent" civil war.
There is little sign of the firm action he called for from a world divided between Assad's opponents and countries such as China, Russia and Iran that are deeply suspicious of Western and Arab states determined to unseat the Syrian leader.
China again urged both sides to comply with Annan's peace plan, which Assad and his foes had accepted, although the rebels said this week they were no longer bound by the truce.
Russia and China have twice vetoed Western-backed Security Council resolutions critical of Syria, whose security forces have killed at least 10,000 people, by a U.N. count, while losing more than 2,600 of their own, according to Damascus.
Stepping up U.S. pressure on Russia to support a Syrian transition that would include Assad's exit from power, State Department official Fred Hof met Russian Deputy Foreign Ministers Gennady Gatilov and Mikhail Bogdanov in Moscow.
Bogdanov said Annan's plan, which does not directly call for Assad's departure, could be adjusted to improve implementation but its core elements must remain.
He has said Moscow would be open to a negotiated Yemen-style power transition in Syria, referring to a deal under which Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down in February after a year of unrest.
Moscow and Beijing have decried the killings of civilians, but resist any plan for coerced political transition, let alone military intervention - not that the West is ready for this.
Clinton has said her country is willing to work on a broad conference on Syria's political future, as long as Assad goes.
She has criticised the idea, favoured by Annan and Moscow, of a contact group that would bring together major powers as well as regional ones, including Iran, a strategic ally of Assad with much at stake in Syria and neighbouring Lebanon.