The Syrian army has prevented United Nations observers from reaching the site of an alleged massacre in Hama province, the top UN commander has said.
Norwegian General Robert Mood said in a statement that UN observers - who are authorised by the Syrian government - were being stopped and in some cases turned back at Syrian army checkpoints.
He said some UN patrols were also being stopped by civilians, and that some residents in the area of the alleged massacre said the observers' would be at risk if they entered.
The UN mission dispatched observers after receiving reports of a mass killing in al-Qubayr, a small village. Opposition activists said that pro-government armed groups backed by security forces killed scores of people there.
Both the Syria's Local Co-ordination Committees, an activist network, and the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said that more than 86 people had died. Syria's government denied any role in the killings.
"What a few media have reported on what happened in al-Qubayr, in the Hama region, is completely false," the government said in a statement on official television.
"A terrorist group committed a heinous crime in the Hama region which claimed nine victims. The reports by the media are contributing to spilling the blood of Syrians," the statement said.
'Atmosphere of terror'
Mousab al-Hamadee, an activist in Hama, told Al Jazeera that the attack bore similarities to last month’s massacre in Houla, and said the government was seeking to create an "atmosphere of terror and intimidation”.
He said the Syrian army had prepared the way by shelling the area before pro-government gangs descended on the village.
“Most of victims were burnt in their houses, many of them were slaughtered by knives in a very ugly way,” he said, adding that women and children were among the dead.
He also criticised the role of the UN monitoring mission.
“Unfortunately they do nothing to protect us, they just come the next day after the massacres to film the corpses and see how we bury our victims … They are just watching us die," he said.
Manhal Abu-Bakar, another Hama-based activist, told Al Jazeera that Syrian tanks began shelling al-Qubayr on Wednesday afternoon. Pro-government militias from nearby villages then drove into the village, executing some people in a manner similar to the killings carried out in Houla, he said.
"There were 35 persons from one family. Those persons have all been killed and most of them are women and children," he said.
Reports of the alleged massacre prompted the opposition Syrian National Council to issue a statement calling on fighters aligned with the anti-government Free Syrian Army to "escalate battlefield action" to ease pressure on civilians "under siege, shelling and assaults in the provinces of Hama, Latakia and Homs".
'Full transfer of power'
Meanwhile, Western and Arab nations have met in Istanbul, Turkey, to discuss the crisis in Syria.
A US official said Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, had told the group that transition in the country should include a "full transfer of power" from President Bashar al-Assad, the creation of a fully representative interim government and free and fair elections.
France said it would host a full Friends of Syria meeting in Paris on July 6, while France and the UK rebuffed a Russian proposal for an international conference on Syria that would include Iran, Damascus' key ally.
"I think the inclusion of Iran in any such group would probably render it unworkable," said William Hague, the British foreign secretary.
"This is a country that is supporting some of the unacceptable violence and supporting the Syrian regime in what it is doing to the Syrian people and that would cause a great difficulty."
Syrian opposition activists in Qatar on Wednesday said that Syrian businesspeople living abroad had created a $300m fund to support rebels fighting government forces.
"This fund has been established to support all components of the revolution in Syria, and to establish a strong relationship with businessmen inside and outside Syria and to protect civilians," said Wael Merza, secretary-general of the Syrian National Council, in the Qatari capital, Doha.
Merza said that half of the $300m had already been spent, with some of it going to the Free Syrian Army.
"The majority of support given [to the rebels] will be on the technical side," Merza said. "It's also logistical support to our people on the ground."
"Yes, we supported the Free [Syrian] Army to protect civilians," Mustafa Sabbagh, the president of the newly formed Syrian Business Forum of businessmen in exile, said.
Also on Wednesday, Assad appointed a former agriculture minister, Riyad Hijab, as prime minister to form a new government.
Fighting continued across Syria on Wednesday with government forces using tanks and attack helicopters to continue shelling towns in Latakia province for a second day, killing at least six people.
The attacks, which killed a family of three in al-Shirqaq and another three people in al-Heffa, came a day after about 33 people were killed during clashes between soldiers and army defectors in the province, according to activists.
Separately, members of the FSA stepped up their offensive in Damascus, the Syrian capital, as well as in other parts of the country.
In-depth coverage of escalating violence across Syria
"Violent clashes broke out in Harasta between regime troops and rebel forces," the SOHR said, referring to a northern suburb of Damascus.
In the southern province of Deraa, at least three soldiers were killed and eight others wounded in violent clashes between troops and FSA members in the area of Lajat. It occurred as government forces launched raids and arrests in the village of Nafaa.
Syrian security forces killed at least three people after opening fire on demonstrations in the towns of Sheikh Issa, Hreitan and Aleppo city, the provincial capital, according to SOHR.
At Aleppo University, where massive anti-government protests have persisted since the uprising began in March last year, fresh demonstrations were reportedly crushed by security forces, who arrested a number of students.