UN observers in Syria who visited the site of a reported massacre in a village in Hama province said they saw blood on the walls and were hit by a "stench of burnt flesh" but could not confirm how many had died.
While the government denied responsibility, Martin Nesirky, a UN spokesman, said on Friday the observers saw armoured vehicle tracks around homes in Al-Qubayr village, that was damaged by rockets, grenades and various other weapons.
"Inside some of the houses, blood was visible across the walls and floors. Fire was still burning outside houses and there was a strong stench of burnt flesh," Nesirky said in a grim account of the visit.
Activists say at least 70 people were killed on Wednesday in an assault on Qubayr, a small farming town in Hama province of about 160 people, mostly Bedouins.
UN officials have made it clear they believe government forces and allies were behind the attack on a mainly Sunni Muslim village surrounded by an Allawite population loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
More than 20 unarmed UN observers were allowed into Qubayr on Friday after they were shot at and prevented from entering the village on Thursday, Nesirky said in a statement.
Monitors in the deserted village were unable to find witnesses of the attack, which has led to calls for tougher action against Assad's government.
Evidence of 'barbarity'
Nesirky said people from a nearby village came "and spoke of what they had heard and the relatives they had lost".
"Armoured vehicle tracks were visible in the vicinity. Some homes were damaged by rockets from armoured vehicles, grenades and a range of caliber weapons," Nesirky said.
"The circumstances surrounding this attack are still unclear. The names, details and number of those killed are still not confirmed. The observers are still working to ascertain the facts," he said.
Nesirky said that Syrian army checkpoints had "stopped" and "in some cases turned back" the observers who made "multiple attempts" to get into Qubayr on Thursday.
"Some of the patrols were being stopped by civilians in the area," he added. The monitors were also told by residents that their "safety was at risk" if they entered the village.
According to preliminary evidence, government troops surrounded Qubayr and militia entered the village and killed civilians with "barbarity", Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, told the UN Security Council on Thursday, according to diplomats at a closed briefing.
Qubayr was the second major massacre in Syria in two weeks. At least 108 people, including 49 children, were killed when forces attacked the town of Houla on May 25.
The government has denied any role in both slaughters.
Deraa 'endures shelling'
The findings of the UN observers came as violence continued across the country.
Activists on Saturday said 17 people, including 10 women, were killed overnight by shelling in the southern Syrian town of Deraa, where the uprising against Assad's rule erupted 15 months ago.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors violence in Syria through a network of sources inside the country, reported fighting in the town between the army and rebels after the shelling.
In the capital Damascus, which was once relatively secure from the unrest, it said explosions were heard overnight after some of the fiercest fighting between rebels and security forces loyal to President Assad.
The main road south from Damascus to Deraa was blocked by burning tyres, it said.
In addition to the deaths in Deraa, the group said 44 civilians were killed across the country on Friday, nearly half of them in the central province of Homs and in Damascus suburbs.
Twenty-five soldiers were also killed on Friday, it said, in the provinces of Idlib, Damascus, Deir al-Zor, Homs and Deraa.
The UN says that well over 10,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011.
Kidnapped Lebanese 'safe'
In a seperate development, gunmen holding 11 Lebanese Shia pilgrims hostage in Syria said they would release the men when their country had established a new "civil state" but left room for negotiations, a video obtained by media showed.
The hostages said in the video they were in good health and being treated well.
"The guests will be released by the Syrian civil state when their case is reviewed by a new democratic parliament," the rebels said in a written statement on the video.
The Lebanese hostages were on a bus that was stopped by gunmen on May 22 as it crossed into northern Syria from Turkey on its way home from a pilgrimage to Iran.
Meanwhile, in Istanbul, the Syrian National Council (SNC), the main opposition bloc, is holding a two-day meeting to choose a new president.
Its former head, Burhan Ghalioun, resigned from his post amid accusations that he was monopolising power.
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|William A. Cook|