At least 70 people were killed in intense fighting in Syria over the past 24 hours, activists said on Wednesday, despite the imminent arrival of a U.N. team to discuss a possible mission to monitor a ceasefire set for next week.
Western powers were seeking U.N. Security Council endorsement of envoy Kofi Annan's deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for an April 10 withdrawal of military forces, to be followed within 48 hours by a ceasefire by rebel forces.
Let me say that from the U.S. point of view, and I think the point of view of many member states, what we have seen since April 1 is not encouraging, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said.
If Assad uses the next seven days to intensify the violence, Rice said, the Security Council would need to respond urgently and seriously.
Human rights group Amnesty International said it had counted 232 deaths since Syria accepted Annan's proposals on March 27. The evidence shows that Assad's supposed agreement to the Annan plan is having no impact on the ground, it said.
Nevertheless, an advance party from the U.N. peacekeeping department was due in Syria shortly to discuss deploying a team of around 250 observers to monitor a ceasefire. It is headed by Norwegian General Robert Mood, Annan's spokesman said.
DAY OF VIOLENCE
The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitor which collates reports from inside Syria, said 58 civilians and 18 soldiers were killed on Tuesday.
It said 20 civilians died in Homs province, including 15 killed in bombardment, shooting and sniper fire in Homs city.
In Idlib province, 20 civilians and seven soldiers were killed in clashes in Taftanaz village, east of Idlib city. Rami Abdulrahman, head of the SOHR, said rebel fighters had hit at least two of the tanks bombarding the village.
The Syrian state news agency SANA said several terrorists and three security men were killed in Taftanaz. Armed terrorist groups ... were attacking citizens, and perpetrating acts of killing, kidnapping and planting explosives, it said.
At a poultry farm in a Dir Baalba orchard (Homs province), the terrorists killed a number of citizens in cold blood, mutilating and burning their bodies after kidnapping them. The terrorists also killed four women at one house in the same neighbourhood after storming it, SANA said.
Accounts of the violence can be difficult to verify because Syria's government restricts access to independent journalists.
Annan's peace plan is the latest international effort to end a year of bloodshed that began with peaceful protests against Assad's authoritarian rule. The envoy presented it to the Syrian leader on March 10 and got a positive reply 16 days later.
But his acceptance of a troop withdrawal has met scepticism among the Syrian opposition and its Western and Arab supporters.
Some analysts predict that huge numbers of Syrians would fill the streets to demand Assad's resignation if the threat of armed repression were lifted. Millions will start demonstrating and Assad can't afford to see this, said Randa Slim, from the Middle East Institute in Washington.
A video said to have been filmed in Damascus on Tuesday night showed a line of fire, probably from burning tyres, cutting off six lanes of traffic on a downtown expressway.
The United Nations estimates Assad's forces have killed more than 9,000 people in the past year, while the government says about 3,000 security personnel have been killed by insurgents.
France said it would hold a meeting in the next two weeks to discuss sanctions on Syria to ensure they are implemented ahead of the next Friends of Syria meeting due to be held in Paris.
There is a final date of April 10, but it's from now that Mr Assad must begin implementing the immediate measures he has committed to, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said.
If the regime continues its refusals, its massacres, then it will be pouring scorn on and insulting the entire international community, he said.
But Syria's ally Russia again attacked the Friends of Syria group of Western and Arab nations who met in Istanbul at the weekend, saying it was undermining Annan's peace mission.
Everyone has supported Kofi Annan's plan, but decisions at the Friends of Syria group meeting aimed at arming the opposition and at new sanctions undermine peace efforts, state-run Itar-Tass quoted Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying.
Lavrov said that even if the opposition is armed to the teeth, it will not defeat the Syrian army. There will be slaughter for many years.
The Syrian news agency SANA said Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem met the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Jakob Kellenberger, and agreed on a cooperation mechanism for humanitarian assistance. It gave no details.
Kellenberger was due to visit the southern city of Deraa near the border with Jordan on Wednesday. The region has suffered months of violence.
There has been no word on the ICRC's longstanding call for a daily two-hour ceasefire to allow aid to be delivered and wounded people to be evacuated.
(Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman in Moscow, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva. Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Alistair Lyon)