UN monitors on Friday finally reached the site of a massacre of villagers in Syria on their second attempt as Western powers pressed at the United Nations for sanctions against Damascus.
The sanctions push came as international envoy Kofi Annan called for "additional pressure" in the wake of the latest massacre as he went into talks in Washington with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
UN spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters in New York the observers managed to reach Al-Kubeir, a day after they were shot at when they tried to enter the village.
"We are not in a position to give further details until the teams have returned with their findings."
Activist Abdel Karim al-Hamwi told AFP in Beirut "the observers first headed to the village of Maarzaf where the victims were buried and then to Al-Kubeir to survey the damage from army shelling."
At least 55 people were killed on Wednesday in an assault on Al-Kubeir, a Sunni farming enclave of some 150 people circled by Alawite villages in the central province of Hama, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Paul Danahar, a BBC correspondent travelling with the UN convoy, reported seeing gutted buildings in Al-Kubeir and no sign of life or bodies.
"The stench of burnt flesh is still strong," he wrote on Twitter, and quoted activists as saying government forces had removed victims' bodies on Thursday while the observers were being hindered from reaching the village.
"In front of me there is a piece of brain, in the corner there is a mass on congealed blood," he wrote. "In front of a burnt out building is carcass of a donkey inside the buildings are gutted. The UN have not found any people yet.
"Who ever did this may have acted with mindless violence but attempts to cover up the details of the atrocity are calculated & clear."
According to preliminary evidence, troops had surrounded Al-Kubeir and militia entered the village and killed civilians with "barbarity," UN chief Ban Ki-moon told the UN Security Council.
Damascus denied responsibility and, as it has done repeatedly in the past, blamed foreign-backed "terrorists," using its term for rebels fighters.
In fresh violence on Friday, troops battled to take back the rebel bastion of Khaldiyeh in the central city of Homs, bombarding it "at a rate of five shells a minute," said the Observatory.
Elsewhere, an explosion in front of a police station in the northwestern city of Idlib killed five people, including two security forces members, said the watchdog.
In all, at least 26 people were killed on Friday, mostly civilians but also including two more members of the security forces who died in a blast in the Damascus suburb of Qudssaya, the watchdog said.
Activists called for protests after weekly Friday prayers under the rallying cry of "Revolutionaries and traders, hand in hand until victory," reaching out to the middle classes in Syria's two main cities of Damascus and Aleppo.
Thousands of people took to the streets in several provinces, activists said, including in the capital where protesters braved a heavy security deployment.
In Kfar Zita, a town in the province of Hama, people emerged from mosques to demonstrate chanting: "We don't want peaceful (revolt). We have bullets and Kalashnikovs!"
More than 13,500 people have been killed in the crackdown on dissent that followed the eruption in mid-March 2011 of anti-government protests and the increasingly violent insurgency against Assad's regime, the Observatory says.
-- Additional pressure --
UN-Arab League envoy Annan said in Washington that he would discuss with Clinton "how we can put additional pressure on the government and the parties to get the plan implemented."
Annan said "everyone is looking for a solution" but acknowledged doubts about a peace deal he brokered, which calls for a ceasefire and dialogue to end more than a year of violence aimed at toppling President Bashar al-Assad.
"Some say the plan may be dead. Is the problem the plan or the problem is implementation?" he asked.
Diplomats in New York said Britain, France and the United States would quickly draw up a Security Council resolution proposing sanctions against Syria. "We will move fast to press for a resolution," a UN diplomat told AFP.
"There will be action in the coming days to get a vote on a resolution which includes measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter -- which would mean sanctions," he added in comments confirmed by other Security Council envoys.
Chapter VII allows for sanctions and, in extreme cases, military action. Russia and China, infuriated by the NATO campaign in Libya last year, have vowed to oppose any military intervention.
The three Western permanent members of the Council want a new campaign for sanctions after Annan said on Thursday that the international community must warn Assad of "clear consequences" if he does not respect the peace plan.
In Moscow, Clinton's point man on Syria, Fred Hof, met Russian diplomats in a bid to persuade Russia to back Assad's removal.
But Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said after the meeting that Russia had no information about a leadership change being planned in Damascus and pointedly failed to make any public call for one.
In other developments, the Red Cross said the situation was "extremely tense" in many parts of Syria and that it was attempting to deliver humanitarian aid to 1.5 million people directly or indirectly affected by the bloodshed.