BEIRUT -- The smell of burnt flesh hung in the air and body parts lay scattered in the deserted Syrian hamlet of Mazraat al-Qubeir on Friday, U.N. monitors said after visiting the site where 78 people were reported massacred two days ago.
The killing spree Wednesday underlined how little outside powers, divided and pursuing their own Middle East interests, have been able to stop rising carnage in the uprising against President Bashar Assad.
A day after Syrian armed forces and villagers turned them back, U.N. monitors reached the settlement, finding it deserted but bearing signs of deadly violence.
Twitter messages and audio accounts by BBC and NPR told of finding pieces of apparent human flesh, a tablecloth "filled with gore," burned-out buildings, smoldering piles of ash, and a dead donkey in Qubeir, where, activists said, as many as 78 people, half of them women and children, were slaughtered Wednesday.
The BBC correspondent, Paul Danahar, said villagers blamed pro-government militiamen, known as shabiha, for the killings, and said the they had taken the bodies away. Another said sticks had been used to kill children.
"This has basically been a scorched-earth policy by whoever this was -- they've killed the people, they've killed the livestock, they've left nothing in the village alive," Mr. Danahar said in a recording. He called it "an appalling scene."
It was unclear when the monitors would make their findings public.
One house was damaged by rocket fire and bullets, U.N. spokesman Sausan Ghosheh said. Another was burned, with bodies inside. "You could smell dead bodies and you could also see body parts in and around the village," Ms. Ghosheh.
Mr. 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 armored personnel carriers or tanks."
Ms. Ghosheh said Qubeir, which has a population of about 150, was empty, but people from other villages arrived to give accounts. "The information was a little bit conflicting. We need to go back, cross-reference what we have heard, and check the names they say were killed, check the names they say are missing."
Civilians are fleeing the fighting, 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," Mr. Annan said before meeting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "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?"
Mrs. Clinton has said her country is willing to work on a conference on Syria's political future, as long as Mr. Assad goes. She has criticized an idea, favored by Mr. Annan and Moscow, of a contact group that would bring together major powers as well as regional ones, including Iran, a strategic ally of Mr. Assad with much at stake in Syria and neighboring Lebanon.
Activists say at least 78 people were shot, stabbed, or burned alive in Mazraat al-Qubeir, a Sunni Muslim hamlet, by forces loyal to Mr. Assad, whose minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, has dominated Syria.
Syrian officials have lambasted the killings in Qubeir and a massacre of civilians in Houla two weeks ago, blaming "terrorists."
The conflict is becoming more sectarian. Militiamen from the Alawite sect appear off the leash, targeting Sunni civilians indiscriminately. .
Opposition activists said those killed in Qubeir had not previously been caught up in the conflict.
Some 300 U.N. observers are in Syria to monitor a truce Mr. Annan declared April 12 but was never implemented. Reduced to observing the violence, they have verified the Houla massacre, where 108 men, women, and children were slain May 25. Mr. Annan has said Syrian troops and pro-Assad militia probably were at fault.
As more civilians flee, the sick or wounded find it hard to reach medical aid or buy food, Hicham Hassan, a Red Cross spokesman, said. "Currently the situation is extremely tense, not only in Houla, not only in Hama, but in many, many places around the country," he said.
Opposition activists said an assault on Hiffeh, which began Monday, included the first use of missiles fired from helicopter gunships since the protests started in March, 2011, and escalated last fall.
Earlier, a car bomb aimed at a bus with 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 Idlib, killing at least five people, it said.
The Qubeir massacre may have had its origins in a warning that government sympathizers issued to residents against harboring anti-government activists.
A Qubeir resident who survived said the attack occurred shortly after an activist wanted by the government went to Qubeir.
When an army unit based nearby was notified of his presence, it began to shell the village and sent in six tanks, plus militiamen, who killed the villagers.
"There had been threats against the village before not to harbor people who are wanted," said the man, who used the pseudonym Laith al-Hamway in fear of retaliation.
The deaths at Qubeir are the latest in what has become a pattern of mass killings after government assaults.
More than 80 women and children were shot or hacked to death in May in Houla in an attack strikingly similar to that on Qubeir -- government shelling, followed by house-to-house searches and killings.