Riyad Farid Hijab, a longtime Baath Party loyalist, has been appointed… (Louai Beshara / AFP/Getty…)
BEIRUT — Antigovernment activists accused forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad of a new massacre of civilians early Thursday, even as United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan reportedly sought to create a coalition of nations to breathe new life into his flagging peace plan for Syria.
Dozens were killed by government shelling and attacks by pro-regime "thugs" in the province of Hama, according to reports by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based antigovernment group that tracks daily casualties.
The group urged United Nations monitors to rush to the town of Mazraat al Kabir and the village of Maarzaf to investigate their allegations.
Reuters news service cited antigovernment activists as saying Syrian security forces killed at least 78 people, including children. At least 12 bodies had been burned, Reuters reported.
An opposition activist told Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite television network, that the killings took place in two stages: a shelling of the area and then the entry of armed militiamen who slaughtered victims with guns and knives.
It was not possible early Thursday to verify the accounts. There was no immediate response from Syrian authorities.
If true, the massacre occurred less than two weeks after the killings of more than 100 people, mostly women and children, in Houla township. Those killings prompted international condemnation of the Syrian government. Syrian authorities blamed antigovernment "armed groups" for the Houla atrocity.
Syria's government has accused the opposition of inflating casualty counts and even committing massacres in a bid to discredit the security services and Assad. The government has said such efforts have previously coincided with major addresses by Annan, who is also the Arab League special envoy for Syria.
Annan is expected to brief the U.N. Security Council on Thursday on the shaky status of his peace plan, which has been widely ignored by both sides. Annan has acknowledged being "frustrated" by his inability to halt the violence in an almost 15-month conflict that has cost more than 10,000 lives.
With his peace blueprint endangered, Annan is reportedly considering a novel proposal — creation of a new international "contact" group designed to pressure Assad to comply with his six-point plan. The proposed group is said to include Security Council permanent members — among them the U.S., Russia and China — as well as such regional powers as Turkey, Arab League nations and, most controversially, Iran.
The group would be distinct from the U.S.-backed Friends of Syria group that explicitly seeks the ouster of Assad.
Russia, a key player in the Syria debate, has apparently backed a version of the plan. On Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for a new international meeting on Syria. Lavrov, speaking in Beijing, said all relevant states should attend, including Iran.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was cool to the idea of involvement by Iran, a close ally of Assad. U.S. officials have accused Iran of helping Assad devise his crackdown on protesters and armed rebels.
"It's hard to imagine inviting a country [Iran] that is stage-managing the Assad regime's assault on its people," Clinton said Wednesday during a visit to Azerbaijan.
The urgent diplomatic search for a solution underscored just how difficult a problem Syria has become for a divided international community.
"We don't have any internationally recognized group that knows exactly what the right thing to do is," Clinton said Wednesday in the former Soviet republic of Georgia during an interview with a local journalist. "Syria could fall into an even more horrible state of violence, with many more people at risk of being killed, injured and displaced. We're all trying to avoid that, but we're also trying to stop Assad and his regime from continuing their brutal assault on their own people."
There were some indications Wednesday that the Obama administration was seeking to go back to the Security Council to seek stronger measures against Assad, possibly including sanctions. Russia and China have twice vetoed Security Council resolutions condemning Assad.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner called on world governments to use "maximum financial pressure" against Assad's regime, which is already reeling under U.S. and European Union economic sanctions.
On Wednesday, both Russia and China reaffirmed their opposition to foreign intervention in Syria or attempts to oust Assad.
"Russia and China are decisively against attempts to regulate the Syrian crisis with outside military intervention, as well as imposing a policy of regime change," the two nations said in a joint statement.
Inside Syria, opposition activists reported that at least 13 people were killed Wednesday in the second day of fierce fighting in the coastal province of Latakia, considered a government stronghold. Government troops were seeking to dislodge rebel forces from the inland town of Haffah, which had been under partial rebel occupation, opposition activists said.
And in Damascus, the capital, Assad named a longtime ruling-party loyalist, Riyad Farid Hijab, to serve as prime minister. He would help usher Assad's "reform" agenda through the newly elected parliament. Opposition activists call the reforms a sham designed to keep Assad in power and marginalize opponents. The opposition boycotted recent elections for a new constitution and a new parliament.
Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington and special correspondent Rima Marrouch in Beirut contributed to this report.