BEIRUT -- UN observers came under fire yesterday 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 escalating bloodshed.

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

International envoy Kofi Annan, whose peace plan he brokered in April has not been implemented, warned against allowing "mass killings to become part of everyday reality."

"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 UN General Assembly in New York. "All Syrians will lose."

UN diplomats said Annan was expected to propose that world powers and key regional players, including Iran, come up with a new strategy to end the 15-month conflict at a closed meeting of the Security Council later.

The latest violence centered on Mazraat al-Qubair, a 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 Shia Islam and Assad is a member, while Sunnis dominate the opposition.

A resident said troops shelled the area for five hours Wednesday before government-aligned militiamen known as "shabiha" entered the area that is known to shelter army defectors, "killing and hacking everyone they could find."

Syria's main opposition group in exile, the Syrian National Council, also said 78 people were killed in Mazraat al-Qubair when government-aligned militiamen converged on the village from neighboring villages.

Some of the dead were shot in the head, others were slain with knives, the SNC said. It said 35 of the dead were from the same family and more than half were women and children.

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

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