BEIRUT (AP) — U.N. observers on Thursday inspected the site of an explosion that flattened a block of houses in the central Syrian city of Hama and killed at least 16 people, while the government and the opposition traded blame over the cause of the blast.
Syrian state-run media said rebel bomb-makers accidentally set off the explosives. Anti-regime activists said intense shelling by government forces caused the extensive damage. It was impossible to independently verify the conflicting accounts because President Bashar Assad's regime, facing a 13-month-old uprising, has restricted access for journalists and other outside witnesses.
The spokesman for U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan, Ahmad Fawzi, said observers visited the site but he had no immediate word on what they saw.
Two U.N. observers are stationed in Hama, part of an advance team of 15 monitors who are visiting hot spots to try to salvage a cease-fire that is part of a peace plan aimed at ending the violence and bringing the two sides to the negotiating table. The observer team is to be expanded in the coming weeks to up to 300.
Amateur videos said to be of Wednesday's blasts in Hama showed a large cloud of white and yellow smoke rising from a neighborhood surrounded by green fields. In a later video, dozens of people searched through the debris, including huge chunks of cement and broken cinderblocks. Another clip shows the bloodied body of a little girl being carried through a crowd of wailing men.
The state-run Syrian news agency SANA said rebels mishandling explosives triggered a blast that killed at least 16 people and severely damaged at least six houses.
The Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists, denied that and said it was intense shelling from government tanks that caused the damage. The group put the death toll as high as 70, but that estimate was not confirmed by others.
Another opposition group, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the cause of the destruction was not immediately clear. The Observatory initially cited reports by local residents that they had come under attack from regime forces.
However, the head of the group, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said he could not confirm those reports and called for an investigation by U.N. observers. He said at least 16 people were killed.
With the violence in Syria continuing despite U.N.-led efforts to implement the truce, the international community has grown increasingly impatient with the Assad regime.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon demanded Thursday that the Syrian government immediately comply with its commitment to withdraw troops and heavy weapons from cities and towns, said U.N. deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, condemned the Syrian government's continuing intense use of heavy weapons in Hama and elsewhere.
Rice also said Wednesday's Hama explosion appeared to be "the result of intense shelling" though she couldn't say this with certainty.
Russia, one of the regime's main allies, said violations of the cease-fire were still being committed by both sides, but blamed the opposition overall.
"Most often this occurs because of provocative actions from the armed opposition, which often force the Syrian security forces to open fire in response," Russia's Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said. Still, he added, the level of violence in the country has declined considerably since the observers arrived.