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Activists report new Syria massacre on eve of U.N. meetings

By the CNN Wire Staff
June 7, 2012 -- Updated 0248 GMT (1048 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Opposition activists report more than 140 killed across Syria on Wednesday
  • 78 people killed in village north of Damascus, opposition activists say
  • Friends of Syria group says more should be done to impose sanctions
  • Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will discuss Syria at U.N. meetings

(CNN) -- Syrian activists reported the deaths of 78 people in a single village Wednesday, a day before two United Nations meetings on the crisis in the Middle Eastern country.

The activists blamed the deaths on Syrian government forces, but the regime blamed a terrorist group for the massacre, saying it was timed to come just before the top-level meetings and make the regime look bad.

In all, more than 140 people were killed throughout Syria on Wednesday at the hands of the regime, the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria reported.

The 78 deaths happened in Qubeir, a tiny village north of Damascus, in the province of Hama. Just 10 families live there in 20 homes, said Lt. Khaled Ali, a spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army's military council in Hama.

Opposition activists said regime forces pummeled the village with tank shells for at least an hour. Militias loyal to the regime then went through the village on foot, using knives, guns and AK-47s to kill anyone they found, said Ali and the Local Coordination Committees.

Thirty-five of the dead were from one family, the Local Coordination Committees said. More than half of those killed were women and children, according to an activist near Qubeir who was evacuating bodies.

Syrian state television said it was an "armed terrorist group" that carried out the killings. It said government forces went to Qubeir to respond to villagers' calls for help and managed to kill a number of terrorists.

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The reported massacre in Qubeir happened on the eve of meetings at the United Nations to discuss the Syrian crisis, which erupted 15 months ago after the government cracked down on peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators.

Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in his new role as envoy to Syria, plans to address separate meetings of the U.N. General Assembly and Security Council in New York. He also plans to discuss the crisis with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington on Friday.

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On Wednesday, Clinton attended a meeting on Syria on the sidelines of the Global Counter Terrorism Forum in Turkey, where she talked about increasing pressure on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and tightening existing sanctions.

Tougher sanctions were also the focus of a meeting Wednesday in Washington by the international Friends of Syria group.

Clinton said those sanctions are already having an impact, with businesses cutting their ties to the region and senior Syrian officials seeing their funds frozen and travel curtailed.

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The meeting in Istanbul looked at a post-Assad transition strategy that would include al-Assad's full transfer of power and setting up a transitional government, a senior State Department official told reporters.

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A key part of that strategy is that all sides adhere to a cease-fire called for in the six-point peace plan that Annan laid out in April, Clinton said.

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"We certainly do want to see transition in Syria, the sooner the better, precipitated by a cease-fire -- a credible cease-fire, a real and lasting cease-fire," deputy State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Wednesday.

Regime change in Syria is not an option for Security Council members Russia and China. The leaders of both countries issued a joint statement Wednesday saying they firmly oppose any foreign military intervention in Syria or any forced regime change.

In the statement, issued during a visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Beijing, Putin and Chinese President Hu Jintao said they want a domestic political solution in Syria.

"We firmly believe that the Syrian crisis has to be resolved fairly and peacefully by having all parties in conflict stop violence and start comprehensive political dialogue without foreign interference," they said.

Putin and Hu did reiterate their support for Annan's plan.

The United States, meanwhile, is sending a delegation led by special adviser Frederic Hof to Russia this week to press for tough action against the Syrian regime, the senior State Department official told reporters.

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Despite the incessant turmoil, the Syrian government said it will let the United Nations enter the country and deliver humanitarian aid to people in need.

"After a long time of very intense negotiations, we now have an agreement in writing with the Syrian government on the scale, scope and modality of humanitarian action in Syria," said John Ging, director of operations at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Syria also announced that it was expelling diplomats from 11 countries. The tit-for-tat move came a week after those nations expelled Syrian officials in response to a gruesome massacre last month in the town of Houla, where more than 100 were killed.

Opposition activists and residents have said pro-regime forces shelled the city before going house to house, lining up residents and shooting them. The Syrian regime denies it was behind the killings.

The United Nations says more than 9,000 people have been killed since the Syrian crisis began in March 2011. Opposition activists put the toll higher, with estimates of 12,000 to 14,000.

CNN cannot independently confirm reports from within Syria because the government strictly limits access by foreign journalists.

CNN's Steven Jiang, Elise Labott, Holly Yan, Salma Abdelaziz, Arwa Damon, Amir Ahmed, and Yousuf Basil contributed to this report.

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