Syria may have used chemical weapons against rebels, the White House has said.
US intelligence agencies believe “with varying degrees of confidence” that the nerve agent sarin had been deployed on a “small scale”, and did not say where or when it had been used.
The White House has warned chemical weapons use would be a “red line” for possible intervention, but says this intelligence does not represent proof.
Republicans in Congress called on Thursday for a strong US response.
The assessment was made in letters to lawmakers on Thursday signed by Miguel Rodriguez, White House director of the office of legislative affairs.
“Our intelligence community does assess, with varying degrees of confidence, that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically, the chemical agent sarin,” one of the letters said.
But it added: “Given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experiences, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient – only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making.”
The phrase “varying degrees of confidence” is normally used to reflect differences in opinion within the intelligence community.
Syria may have used chemical weapons against rebels, the White House has said
Speaking to reporters in Abu Dhabi on Thursday, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters in Abu Dhabi that the use of sarin “violates every convention of warfare”.
Secretary of State John Kerry said there had been two instances of chemical weapons use in Syria.
The UK Foreign Office echoed the US claims, saying it had “limited but persuasive information from various sources” of chemical weapons use in Syria.
It is understood that Britain obtained samples from inside Syria that have been tested by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, Wiltshire.
“Material from inside Syria tested positive for sarin,” a Foreign Office spokesman said.
Syria is believed to possess large quantities of chemical weapons and there has been heightened concern among the international community in recent months about the safety of the stockpiles.
Although there have been numerous accusations, there has so far not been any confirmation that chemical weapons have been used during Syria’s two-year-old conflict.
President Barack Obama warned in December that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would face “consequences” if he used such weapons.
The letters released on Thursday were sent to powerful US senators John McCain and Carl Levin.
In response, Senator John McCain told reporters: “It’s pretty obvious that red line has been crossed.”
John McCain recommended arming the opposition, a step the White House has been reluctant to take. He also urged taking steps to ensure that Syria’s chemical weapons did not fall into the wrong hands.
“It does not mean boots on the ground,” the Arizona senator added.
Democrat Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called for international action to help secure Syria’s stockpile of chemical arms.
Robert Menendez, the Democratic Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said options included “an internationally recognized no-fly zone, providing lethal assistance to vetted opposition forces, and sanctioning the transfer of arms to the regime”.
White House officials said the US would consult with allies and seek more evidence to confirm their intelligence.
On Tuesday, a senior Israeli military official accused Syrian forces of having used the nerve agent sarin against rebels several times. People can normally recover from small doses.
Speaking at a security conference in Jerusalem, Brigadier General Itai Brun cited photographs of victims foaming at the mouth and with constricted pupils and other unspecified symptoms.
Syria’s government and rebels have accused each other of using chemical weapons. A UN team is trying to enter Syria to investigate.
Sarin is a colorless and highly toxic nerve agent that can cause convulsions, paralysis and death within minutes if it is absorbed through inhalation, ingestion, or contact with skin or eyes.
According to the UN, at least 70,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict.
A Save the Children report has revealed that an increasing number of children in Syria are being recruited by armed groups on both sides of the conflict.
Children are being used as porters, guards, informers and fighters and, in some cases, as human shields, the charity said in Childhood Under Fire.
Some two million children are in need of assistance in Syria, Save the Children estimates.
It says the two-year conflict has affected all aspects of their lives.
Researchers from Turkey found that three in every four Syrian children they interviewed had lost a loved one because of the fighting, the report says.
Many have lost access to healthcare and are living in unsanitary conditions where the risk of disease is high. Their families are struggling for food as shortages send prices beyond the reach of poorer families.
Their education has been disrupted as some 2,000 schools have either been damaged by the fighting or become temporary shelters for displaced people.
Syria’s children are the conflict’s “forgotten victims – facing death, trauma and suffering, and deprived of basic humanitarian aid”, the report said.
A Save the Children report has revealed that an increasing number of children in Syria are being recruited by armed groups on both sides of the conflict
Save the Children has appealed for international help, but said: “The only way to stop their suffering is to bring an end to the war.”
The report said it had found a growing pattern of children under the age of 18 being used by armed groups on both sides in the conflict.
For many children and their families, it is seen as a source of pride, the report says, but some children are being forcibly recruited into military activities.
In some cases, children as young as eight have been used as human shields, the report says.
One group affiliated to the opposition has documented the deaths of at least 17 children associated with armed groups since the start of the conflict; many others have been severely injured and in some cases permanently disabled, the report also says.
The research team at Bahcesehir University in Turkey found that not only had three in every four children they spoke to had lost a loved one, but one in every three children had been hit, kicked or shot at in the course of the conflict.
“I don’t think there is a single child untouched by this war,” the report quotes a child called Safa as saying.
“Everyone has seen death, everyone has lost someone. I know no one who has not suffered as we have. It is on such a scale.”
The Save the Children report echoes similar findings made public by the UN children’s agency Unicef on Tuesday.
Unicef warned of a lost generation in Syria, saying children under the age of 18 were growing up knowing nothing but violence, were being deprived of a right to an education and were suffering traumas that could scar them for life.
As many as 70,000 people have died in the two-year conflict, the UN believes.
More than a million Syrians have now been registered as refugees by the UN in neighboring countries.
More than fifty people have been killed by two blasts in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, activists and officials say.
The explosions reportedly struck an area between the University of Aleppo’s halls of residence and the architecture faculty on the first day of exams.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll at 52, but Aleppo’s governor said 82 people had died.
State TV said “terrorists” had launched rockets at the campus, but activists blamed missiles fired by warplanes.
In almost two years of fighting in Syria, Aleppo has been the scene of intense conflict between government and opposition forces.
However, neither side has been able to force the other to retreat for good, says the BBC’s James Reynolds in neighboring Turkey.
Video footage of the aftermath of the explosions in Syria’s second city showed the facade of one of the university residences blown away.
Burned-out vehicles and bodies could be seen on the street outside, while tearful survivors were shown taking refuge in a nearby building.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based activist group, said at least 52 people had been killed, but added that the figure might rise dramatically because dozens were in a critical condition in hospital.
The explosions reportedly struck an area between the University of Aleppo’s halls of residence and the architecture faculty on the first day of exams
The governor of Aleppo, Mohammed Wahid Akkad, told the AFP news agency that so far 82 had died and more than 160 were wounded.
Mohammed Wahid Akkad blamed a “terrorist attack that targeted students on their first day of exams”.
A military source told AFP that a stray surface-to-air missile fired by rebels had hit the campus, which lies in a government-controlled area of the city. The nearest rebel-held area is more than a mile away.
However, no rebel group has said it was behind the blasts, and opposition activists said government had sent fighter jets to bomb the campus.
The Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), an opposition activist network, posted a link to an online video which purported to show warplanes bombing the campus.
It showed students walking quickly away from the university after the first explosion. The camera then shakes to the sound of another explosion and people begin running.
“The warplanes of this criminal regime do not respect a mosque, a church or a university,” a student who gave his name as Abu Tayem told the Reuters news agency.
Rebels have previously carried out bombings against government targets in Aleppo. In October, at least 34 people were killed in a series of bombings in the city’s main square.
The United Nations says more than 60,000 people have been killed since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011.
Meanwhile, Russia has rejected a request from more than 50 countries to have the UN Security Council refer the conflict in Syria to the International Criminal Court, calling the initiative “ill-timed and counterproductive”.
According to the UN, 1 million Syrians are going hungry and helpless due to the 22-month civil conflict in the country.
The World Food Program (WFP) says it is helping 1.5 million Syrians, but continued fighting and an inability to use the port of Tartus to deliver food mean many people are not receiving aid.
The UN estimates that more than 60,000 people have been killed in the uprising, which began in March 2011.
Rebels have gained control of swathes of northern Syria in recent months.
The increasingly dangerous situation meant the WFP had pulled its staff out of its offices in Homs, Aleppo, Tartus and Qamisly, said agency spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs.
According to the UN, 1 million Syrians are going hungry and helpless due to the 22-month civil conflict in the country
Late 2012 saw a sharp rise in the number of attacks on WFP aid trucks, said the agency, which has also been hit by fuel shortages.
Meanwhile, the UN refugee agency said the number of refugees fleeing the violence in Syria had leapt by nearly 100,000 in the past month.
It said there were 597,240 registered refugees and individuals awaiting registration as of January 6 – up from 509,559 the month before.
The UN estimates that around four million Syrians are in need of humanitarian aid.
Opposition forces have been making considerable gains in recent weeks, but their efforts to take control of areas around major cities including Damascus have met with stiff resistance and increasingly destructive air strikes.
On Monday, the New York Times reported that Israeli intelligence indicated Syrian troops were mixing chemicals – suspected to be the deadly nerve gas sarin – at two storage sites, and filling dozens of 500-pound (225 kg) bombs that could be loaded on airplanes.
The reports in late November prompted a flurry of international statements warning the regime of President Bashar al-Assad against using chemical weapons on his own people.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO Secretary General, has underlined President Barack Obama’s warning to the Syrian government not to use chemical weapons against its own people.
At a NATO foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels, Anders Fogh Rasmussen said their use would be “completely unacceptable”.
The foreign ministers are expected to approve the deployment of Patriot anti-missile batteries to Turkey.
The move is designed to defend Turkey’s border with Syria.
Activists say more than 40,000 people have been killed since the Syrian uprising against President Assad began in March 2011. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled the country and another 2.5 million are displaced within its borders.
On Tuesday, a teacher and at least 28 students were killed in a rocket attack on their school inside the Wafideen refugee camp, 20 km (15 miles) north-east of Damascus.
The origin of the firing was not clear – state media said it had been a rebel mortar attack.
Speaking ahead of the NATO meeting, Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters: “The possible use of chemical weapons would be completely unacceptable for the whole international community.
“If anybody resorts to these terrible weapons, then I would expect an immediate reaction from the international community.”
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO Secretary General, has underlined President Barack Obama’s warning to the Syrian government not to use chemical weapons against its own people
The meeting of the 28-member Western military alliance’s foreign ministers in Brussels follows a request from Turkey to boost its defences along the border. NATO officials have made clear such a move would be purely defensive.
Barack Obama has warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad he would face “consequences” if he used chemical weapons against his people.
“The world is watching. The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable,” said Barack Obama in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington.
“If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”
A Syrian official has insisted the country would “never, under any circumstances” use such weapons, “if such weapons exist”.
A NATO team has already visited a number of sites in Turkey in preparation for the deployment of Patriot batteries, which could be used to shoot down any Syrian missiles or warplanes that stray over the border.
The missile deployment is likely to be approved despite opposition from Russia, whose foreign minister is also attending Tuesday’s meeting in Brussels.
But analysts say any deployment – possibly supplied by the US, Germany or the Netherlands – could take weeks.
Syrian opposition fighters have reportedly made dramatic gains recently, and several government mortar shells – aimed at rebel targets close to the border – have landed across its 900-km (560-mile) border with Turkey.
Ankara’s request for NATO to deploy the anti-missile batteries came after intelligence assessments that Damascus was contemplating using ballistic missiles, potentially armed with chemical warheads, reports say.
Syria is believed to hold chemical weapons – including mustard gas and sarin, a highly toxic nerve agent – at dozens of sites around the country.
The CIA has said those weapons “can be delivered by aircraft, ballistic missile and artillery rockets”.
One unnamed US official told the New York Times on Monday that the level of concern in Washington was such that contingency plans were being prepared.
On Monday the United Nations said it was pulling “all non-essential international staff” out of Syria, with as many as 25 out of 100 international staff expected to leave this week.
The European Union has withdrawn its mission altogether. The ambassador and head of delegation to Syria, Vassilis Bontosoglou, left Damascus with his six remaining international staff members on Tuesday morning.
Although the head of the Arab League Nabil al-Arabi told AFP on Monday that the Syrian government could fall “any time”, it still holds the capital, parts of the second city Aleppo, and other centres.
Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi is said to have fled the country, amid reports he has been dismissed, ostensibly for making statements out of line with government policy.
At least 34 people have been killed and many injured by two car bomb explosions in Jaramana, a south-eastern district of Damascus, Syrian state media report.
State television said “terrorists” were behind the blasts in Jaramana and broadcast pictures showing several charred vehicles and damaged buildings.
The district is predominantly Druze and Christian, two communities which have so far not joined the uprising.
Earlier, there were clashes between security forces and rebels in Jaramana.
There has been fierce fighting in recent days in eastern parts of the countryside around Damascus, known as the Ghouta.
The pro-government TV channel, Addounia, said the car bombs exploded in Jaramana shortly after 06:40 local time.
“Terrorists blew up two car bombs filled with a large amount of explosives in the main square,” the official Sana news agency reported.
State television quoted a source at the interior ministry as saying that 34 people had died and 83 had been seriously injured.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based activist group, put the death toll at 38.
“Activists and residents in the town said most of the victims were killed when a suicide attacker blew up his car, just after an explosive device was used to blow up another car,” it said.
At least 34 people have been killed and many injured by two car bomb explosions in Jaramana, a south-eastern district of Damascus
Two smaller bombs also exploded in Jaramana at around the same time as the attack, Sana said, adding that nobody was killed by them.
No group has said it was behind the bombings, and there was no immediately obvious military or government target.
“What do they want from Jaramana? The town brings together people from all over Syria and welcomes everybody,” one resident told the AFP news agency.
The population of Jaramana is mainly Christian and Druze, a heterodox offshoot of Islam. It is also home to many Palestinian and Iraqi refugees.
Few members of Syria’s minority groups have supported the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad. They are fearful for their future if the country’s majority Sunni Muslim community chooses an Islamist leadership to replace decades of secular rule.
Supporters of the government in Jaramana and other Damascus suburbs have set up armed vigilante groups – known as Popular Committees – to prevent attacks such as Wednesday’s. On 29 October, 11 people were killed in a car bombing in Jaramana.
Elsewhere on Wednesday, witnesses told AFP that rebel fighters had captured the pilot of a warplane shot down over Darat Izza, in the northern province of Aleppo. One of the agency’s reporters earlier saw a large explosion as the jet crashed near the town.
Fighter jets earlier bombarded rebel positions in the western Damascus suburb of Darayya, the SOHR said.
The government army also reportedly shelled Zabadani, a town in the mountains north-west of the capital. The Syrian Revolution General Commission, an opposition activist network, said more than 50 shells had fallen on the town in 30 minutes, injuring several people.
The Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), another activist network, reported that at least 50 people had been killed across the country on Wednesday, most of them in Jaramana.
Activists say more than 40,000 people have been killed since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011.
Syrian rebels say they have launched a major offensive to capture key airbase at Taftanaz, in the north of the country.
Video posted on the internet showed fighters attacking the Taftanaz base in an attempt to control a strategic zone between Syria’s two biggest cities, Aleppo and Damascus.
The attack comes a day before a crucial opposition meeting in Doha, Qatar.
It also follows the apparent murder of a number of Syrian troops by rebels, which drew international condemnation.
Separately, Israel said three Syrian tanks had entered the demilitarized buffer zone in the Golan Heights to tackle rebel fighters, prompting an Israeli complaint to the UN forces overseeing a truce in the area.
The attack on Taftanaz took place as dawn broke, with five different units of rebel fighters opening fire with multiple rocket launchers, mortars and other weaponry, according to the video.
This appears to be a major operation aimed not just at striking the airport, but at occupying it.
In recent months, the government forces have been making increasing use of air power to strike areas held by the rebels, who lack anti-aircraft weapons to deter the attacks.
Rebel forces are reported to have taken control of the main roads in much of the area south-west of Aleppo.
The video said the rebel groups involved included several brigades of the Free Syrian Army, but also the radical Islamist al-Nusra Front.
Syrian rebels say they have launched a major offensive to capture key airbase at Taftanaz
Although nothing certain has been established, al-Nusra has been named in connection with the killing of captured army soldiers two days ago at Saraqeb, just 15 km (10 miles) from where this latest attack is taking place.
The UN has said the video that appears to show the murder of the soldiers or pro-government militiamen could be evidence of a war crime.
The footage shows gunmen beating and shooting a group of prisoners who were cowering on the floor.
On Friday, the US said it “condemned human rights violations by any party in Syria”.
State department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said: “There is no justification for that kind of behavior ever. Anyone committing atrocities should be held to account.”
The question of apparent brutality by some rebel units has become a serious concern ahead of the major opposition meeting being held in Qatar this weekend.
The US is hoping a new leadership will help unify the disparate opposition elements and bring a successful conclusion to an uprising that has killed more than 36,000 people since protests against President Bashar al-Assad erupted in March 2011.
Divisions have arisen not just between Islamist and secularist groups, but also between those operating inside Syria and opposition figures working abroad.
Victoria Nuland said there was a need for cohesion of rebel forces within Syria and a strong organization outside the country that could work with the international community.
A previous opposition meeting in Cairo in July accepted that the Assad government must fall but failed to appoint a committee to act for the opposition internationally.
The US this week signaled the opposition needed to be expanded from the main overseas grouping, the Syrian National Council, to take in more of those operating inside Syria.
Representatives at Doha will include various other religious and secular groupings, plus Kurdish figures and dissident members of Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect.
Turkey has contacted the UN and NATO after Syrian shells killed five people in Turkish town Akcakale near the border between the two countries.
The shells exploded after being fired into Akcakale from Tall al-Abyad in Syria, where forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are trying to put down an 18-month-old insurgency.
The dead are said to include a woman and her three children.
Later, reports said Turkey had struck back at Syrian targets.
A statement from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkish forces had shelled targets along the border identified by radar, AFP news agency reported.
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc was quoted as saying that Syria must be made to account for the incident and there must be a response under international law.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu contacted UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, the UN’s Syria peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen after the incident, his office said.
The minister cleared his schedule and chaired an emergency meeting at the foreign ministry, it added.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen told Turkey’s foreign minister that he strongly condemned the incident, a NATO spokeswoman said, and continued to follow developments in the region “closely and with great concern”.
He has repeatedly said that NATO has no intention of intervening in Syria but stands ready to defend Turkey if necessary.
Akcakale has been fired on several times over the past few weeks. Residents have been advised to stay away from the border, and more than 100 schools have been closed in the region because of the violence in neighboring Syria.
Turkey’s state-owned Anatolia news agency reported that angry townspeople had marched to the mayor’s office to protest about the deaths on Wednesday.
Town mayor Abdulhakim Ayhan said: “There is anger in our community against Syria,” adding that stray bullets and shells had panicked residents over the past 10 days.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: “We are outraged that the Syrians have been shooting across their border… and regretful of the loss of life on the Turkish side.”
She added it was a “very dangerous” situation.
Although Turkish territory has been hit by fire from Syria on several occasions since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began, Wednesday’s attack is believed to be only the second time that people have died as a result.
Two Syrian nationals were killed on Turkish soil in April by stray bullets fired from Syria.
In Syria itself, at least 34 people have been killed and dozens wounded in a series of bomb explosions in the centre of Syria’s second city, Aleppo.
The attacks leveled buildings in the city’s main square. A military officers’ club and a hotel being used by the military bore the brunt of the blasts, some of which were carried out by suicide car bombers.
UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, has warned that as many as 700,000 people could have fled Syria by the end of the year, a huge increase on its previous estimate.
Some 294,000 refugees have already left Syria, and the UNHCR is appealing for money to help deal with the crisis.
Most of the refugees are housed in camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
Rami Abdel Rahman, from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), said the figure included only those whose names had been documented.
UNHCR has warned that as many as 700,000 people could have fled Syria by the end of the year
“If we count the unidentified bodies, the figure will be much higher,” he said.
The observatory (SOHR) said 199 of Wednesday’s dead were civilians.
The SOHR is one of the most prominent organizations documenting and reporting incidents and casualties in the Syrian conflict. The group says its reports are impartial, though its information cannot be independently verified.
Other groups estimated Wednesday’s death toll to be considerably higher.
The UNHCR said between 2,000 and 3,000 refugees were fleeing the violence into neighboring countries every day.
“Many refugees are arriving with only the clothes on their backs,” said Panos Moumtzis, the agency’s regional co-ordinator for Syrian refugees.
“Some have been displaced many times before leaving Syria. They need humanitarian assistance from day one.”
The agency said in March it estimated that about 100,000 people would have fled by the end of the year.
But that number was surpassed in July.
The agency said it was urgently trying to prepare for winter, warning that many of the refugees were still living in tents.
For much of the past 18 months rebel groups have been fighting against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Activists estimate more than 27,000 people have died in the violence.
Repeated efforts by the international community to find a diplomatic solution have foundered because of a deep divide at the UN Security Council.
Late on Wednesday US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Security Council was “paralyzed” and urged the members to overcome their differences.
A warplane has attacked a petrol station in the north-east of Syria, killing at least 30 people, opposition activists say.
A rebel group said people had been queuing for petrol and diesel near Ain Issa at the time.
The village is some 20 miles (32 km) from the Tal al-Abyad border post, seized by rebels on Wednesday after a lengthy battle with government forces.
The number of casualties was expected to rise, reports said.
Unverified footage posted online showed several charred vehicles and one activist group said 70 wounded people had been taken to hospital in the nearby town of Raqqa.
A warplane has attacked a petrol station in the north-east of Syria, killing at least 30 people
One activist told AFP news agency that the filling station was the only one still operating in the area and had been crowded at the time of the explosion.
A barrel of explosives was dropped on the petrol station, opposition activists said, causing a huge explosion and fire.
Syria’s armed forces have exploited their air power in recent weeks.
The use of hugely destructive but crude bombs involving a barrel packed with explosives has become increasingly common.
It is often impossible to verify the circumstances and the extent of casualties involved in attacks in Syria because reporters are unable to travel around the country.
But the burned-out pick-up trucks and a smouldering tractor seen in the video indicated a recent attack.
A day after the Tal al-Abyad border post was seized by Free Syrian Army rebels, opposition groups reported that fierce clashes between government and rebel forces were still going on for control of security buildings in the town.
The crossing-point is on the main road between Raqqa and the Turkish town of Sanliurfa and Turkish officials told AFP news agency that pro-Assad forces were shelling the area in an attempt to recapture the post.
Turkish media showed images of the rebel flag flying at the crossing alongside the Turkish flag.
Local schools in the Turkish border town of Akcakale were closed because of the danger of stray bullets and AFP reported that three Turkish civilians had been wounded.
There were conflicting reports earlier when a military helicopter was said to have crashed in the suburb of Douma, north-east of the capital, Damascus.
Syrian state media reported that the helicopter’s rotor had clipped the tail of a Syrian Arab Airlines plane carrying 200 passengers. The plane was then said to have landed safely at Damascus airport.
All passengers on board the plane were unharmed, reports said.
Initially, opposition activist group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels had shot down the helicopter but that claim was not repeated elsewhere.
The government has increasingly used helicopters and planes in its fight against the rebels and activists reported clashes in the Douma area at the time.
Last month, rebels said they shot down a helicopter on the outskirts of Damascus.
Clashes were reported on Thursday across Syria, including Damascus and the second city, Aleppo.
Government forces were said to have overrun several districts in the south of Damascus where rebels have been holding out.
Syrian state TV said at least 100 “terrorists” were detained in the densely populated Yarmouk area, an unofficial Palestinian refugee settlement.
In the Dutch political capital, The Hague, a group of financial experts, foreign diplomats and Syrian defectors was meeting to look for new economic ways of weakening Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power.
The group, called the Friends of Syria, was discussing how to make sanctions on the Syrian government more effective and how to track down the Assad government’s hidden financial assets.
Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal at the meeting said that one of the problems was that not all countries implemented sanctions on Syria.
Abdo Husameddin, a former Syrian oil minister who defected from the regime in March, said President Bashar al-Assad’s extended family may have billions of dollars hidden abroad.
“They are talking about probably more than $10 billion. And there are some other faces in fact hidden beside the regime itself. So all of this money is not directly under the name of Assad himself, but by other names.”
On Wednesday, the foreign minister of Iran, Syria’s close regional ally, held talks with President Bashar al-Assad, who told him that the attack his country was facing was not just against Syria, but also against its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah.
The UN estimates that the conflict has left at least 20,000 people dead.
Key Syrian defector General Manaf Tlas has hinted that French secret agents helped him flee Syria in early July.
Manaf Tlas said French “services” had helped him escape but refused to be drawn on how, only thanking the French government.
He warned that if the Damascus regime was subjected to more pressure, it could resort to using chemical weapons.
General Manaf Tlas was speaking from his refuge in Paris to interviewers from BBC Arabic and French news channel BFMTV.
His defection was seen as a major blow to the Damascus government.
Not only did he command the elite 10th Brigade of the Republican Guard, but his father Mustafa Tlas served as defence minister for 30 years and was a confidant of Hafez al-Assad, the president’s father and predecessor.
Key Syrian defector General Manaf Tlas has hinted that French secret agents helped him flee Syria in early July
General Manaf Tlas has been touted as a potential figurehead for the opposition but many reject him as too deeply compromised.
He would not specify exactly which French organization had assisted his escape, saying he feared he could endanger those who had helped him.
As well as French groups, Manaf Tlas said the Free Syrian Army had helped him escape “from a distance”.
He warned the regime – under pressure – could resort to using chemical weapons “in limited areas”, adding: “If they used tanks and warplanes against civilians what would keep them from using anything else?”
Syria is at a “dangerous crossroads”, General Manaf Tlas warned, and he urged the international community to “focus all its efforts to draft a real road map to get Syria out of this crisis”.
But he said he was “of course against foreign intervention of any shape or form in Syria”, saying the Syrian people had to “achieve their own victory” and the international community could only help by “putting a new strategy for the revolution”.
The question of foreign intervention has divided the UN over Syria, with Russia and China refusing to back UN sanctions against their ally.
The new UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, began his first mission on Monday with a visit to Cairo, and is due to visit Damascus in the coming days. But he has acknowledged the difficulty of the mission which defeated his predecessor, Kofi Annan.
Gen. Manaf Tlas suggested that his “defection” from the government had begun long before he physically fled his country when he withdrew to his office, alienated by the authorities’ violent response to protests.
“On the third month of the revolution, I defected from the regime,” he said.
“I met demonstrators and rebels, listened to their demands and felt that the regime is not willing to change.
“I felt that the regime was lying to the rebels and was searching for shortcuts. I withdrew to my office, did not listen to anyone and decided to defect and help the rebels.”
Manaf Tlas said many of the rebels he had met had been “imprisoned, murdered or tortured as a result of making real humanitarian demands”.
He urged his former friend, President Bashar al-Assad, to give up power not just for Syria’s sake, but for that of his family.
On Monday, it emerged that Russia was proposing organizing a conference bringing together “all the players” of the deadly Syria conflict, including opposition groups, ordinary citizens and the ruling regime.
In an interview scheduled to be published by leading French daily Le Figaro on Wednesday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov reportedly said the conference would be organized along the lines of the Taif conference that ended Lebanon’s civil war in 1990.
According to the UN, more than 18,000 people have been killed since the conflict began in March 2011. Activists put the death toll at 23,000.
Egypt’s President Mohammed Mursi has told a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Iran that the Syrian uprising is a “revolution against an oppressive regime”.
Mohammed Mursi, who is making the first visit to Iran by an Egyptian leader since 1979, said the movement had an “ethical duty” to support the uprising.
His comments sparked a walkout by the Syrian delegation.
Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said Mr Mursi’s speech “incites continued bloodshed in Syria”.
Egypt has been holding the rotating NAM presidency and Mohammed Mursi was handing the duty over to Iran during his visit.
He used his speech to tell delegates of the 120-member body: “Our solidarity with the struggle of the Syrian people against an oppressive regime that has lost its legitimacy is an ethical duty, as it is a political and strategic necessity.
“We all have to announce our full solidarity with the struggle of those seeking freedom and justice in Syria, and translate this sympathy into a clear political vision that supports a peaceful transition to a democratic system of rule that reflects the demands of the Syrian people for freedom.”
Egypt's President Mohammed Mursi has told Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Iran that the Syrian uprising is a revolution against an oppressive regime
He compared the anti-government movement in Syrian to the Palestinians, saying they were both “actively seeking freedom, dignity and human justice”, and said Egypt was “ready to work with all to stop the bloodshed”.
Tehran’s hope for the summit was to show the West the Islamic Republic had plenty of friends elsewhere, but Mohammed Mursi’s comments would certainly have upset the hosts.
However, he says not everyone in Iran would have noticed, as one Iranian state TV channel mistranslated Mohammed Mursi’s words into Persian, giving the impression that president was actually speaking in support of the Syrian government.
Syria’s delegation walked out of the conference room when Mohammed Mursi began speaking, Egyptian and Syrian media reported. Iranian media said they had simply left to conduct an interview.
Walid Muallem said Mohammed Mursi’s comments “violated the traditions of the summit and are considered interference in Syrian internal affairs”.
He accused Mohammed Mursi of “inciting continued bloodshed in Syria”.
Mohammed Mursi’s visit was the first by an Egyptian leader to Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when Iran cut ties with President Anwar Sadat’s administration over its signing of a peace treaty with Israel.
After his speech, Mohammed Mursi met Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said the presidents had discussed bilateral ties and “emphasized the need to solve the Syria crisis via diplomacy and to prevent foreign intervention”.
Mohammed Mursi left Tehran shortly afterwards, Iranian media said.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who is attending the summit, said Syria was facing a long-term civil war, and warned that “those who provide arms to either side in Syria are contributing to the misery”.
“The situation cannot be resolved with the blood and the bodies of more than 18,000 people and counting. There should be no more bullets and bombs. I urge all parties in the strongest possible terms to stop the violence now,” he said.
Ban Ki-moon’s acceptance of Tehran’s invitation to the summit was described by the US State Department as “strange”, but the South Korean has not shied from drawing attention to the Iran’s human rights record, telling a press conference he had “serious concerns”.
Nuclear disarmament is also on the agenda of the talks and in his speech to delegates on Thursday, Ayatollah Khamenei said that, contrary to the view held in the West, Iran was “never seeking nuclear weapons”.
He said such weapons were “a major and unforgivable sin”, but that Iran would “never give up the right to peaceful nuclear energy”.
The ayatollah also criticized the “illogical” structure of the United Nations Security Council, saying it enabled the US to impose its “bullying manner” on the world, Reuters reports.
“The UN Security Council has an irrational, unjust and utterly undemocratic structure, and this is an overt dictatorship,” he said.
Ban Ki-moon responded to the ayatollah’s statement by calling on Iran to build confidence in its nuclear ambitions by co-operating fully with the Security Council over its nuclear programme.
He also rebuked Tehran for its hostility towards Israel, saying: “I strongly reject threats by any member states to destroy another or outrageous attempt to deny historical facts such as the Holocaust, claiming that another state, Israel, does not have the right to exist or describing it in racist terms.”
Kofi Annan is quitting as UN-Arab League envoy, the UN has announced.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Kofi Annan had decided not to renew his mandate when it expires at the end of August.
Kofi Annan authored a six-point peace plan for Syria which was intended to bring an end to the fighting.
But the plan was never fully adhered to by either side and the violence has continued.
Kofi Annan is quitting as UN-Arab League envoy
Ban Ki-moon said Kofi Annan deserved “our profound admiration for the selfless way in which he has put his formidable skills and prestige to this most difficult and potentially thankless of assignments”.
He said he was in discussion with the Arab League to find a successor to “carry on this crucial peacemaking effort”.
“I remain convinced that yet more bloodshed is not the answer; each day of it will only make the solution more difficult while bringing deeper suffering to the country and greater peril to the region,” he added.
Syria’s defense minister Daoud Rajiha and his deputy Assef Shawkat, President Assad’s brother-in-law, have died in a suspected suicide bombing at security headquarters in Damascus, state TV says.
Daoud Rajiha and Assef Shawkat were attending a meeting of senior officials at the time.
The national security chief and interior minister are said to be critically hurt.
The attack comes amid claims of a major rebel offensive on the city.
A statement by the armed forces read out on TV shortly after the attack said Syria was “more determined than ever” to fight terrorism and wipe out “criminal gangs”.
Whoever thinks that killing top commanders “can twist Syria’s arm… is delusional”, it said.
The rebels now clearly believe that victory is within sight, and the deaths will give them even greater heart.
Security sources say the suspected bomber worked as a bodyguard for members of President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle.
General Daoud Rajiha has been defense minister for less than a year, serving previously as chief of staff, and is on a US blacklist for his role in the suppression of dissent.
He is believed to be an Orthodox Christian – a rarity in the Alawite-dominated Syrian military and government.
General Assef Shawkat is considered a top security chief and a member of the inner circle of the regime. He is married to Bashar al-Assad’s sister Bushra.
General Assef Shawkat was a top security chief and Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law
In other developments:
• Turkish officials report two Syrian generals are among hundreds of refugees who fled into Turkey overnight, bringing the total number of fleeing generals to 20.
• Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to discuss the Syrian crisis with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The area around the national security building, in Rawda district, has been sealed off.
Witnesses at the site of the bombing said journalists were banned from approaching.
“The terrorist explosion which targeted the national security building in Damascus occurred during a meeting of ministers and a number of heads of [security] agencies,” the TV said.
The reports say that Hisham Ikhtiar, director the National Security Bureau, and Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar, were among those injured in the attack.
Earlier, activists reported more clashes during the night in several areas around the south-west of Damascus.
They said the government had brought more troops and armour into some districts, and that several people had been killed in clashes and bombardments.
A rebel spokeswoman, Susan Ahmad, said the entrances to Damascus were closed on Wednesday morning.
“We heard the sounds of explosions every now and then all around Damascus,” she said.
“Now tanks are storming into al-Qaboun [district], shelling everything, shelling residential houses, shooting every moving thing and they are trying to arrest people and kill.
“People are trying to run away and get out of al-Qaboun.”
Activists have also posted on the internet pictures of what they say is a barracks on the heights overlooking the city engulfed in flames.
They believed it had been hit by fire from Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels, and said the barracks is involved in providing security for the presidential palace complex below.
State media said security forces fought off attacks by small groups of armed terrorists in the city.
But the TV carried night-time footage of troops deployed in the Midan quarter, in some very tense and deserted streets.
The rebels have declared a final battle for the capital, calling it Operation Damascus Volcano, and have been fighting troops in several parts of Damascus for the past three days.
The fighting reached central areas on Tuesday, with gunfire and plumes of smoke reported in a street near parliament.
The Free Syrian Army said the operation was well planned, and they had sent hundreds of fighters to the capital last week to be in place for the assault.
The rebels and the government often publish contradictory accounts of the same incidents.
Western journalists are under heavy restrictions in Syria, making it difficult to verify the claims of either side.
The attack comes as UN chiefs have been trying to persuade China and Russia to agree tougher measures on Syria, ahead of a Security Council vote on Wednesday on imposing sanctions.
UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan held talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon met Chinese leader Hu Jintao in Beijing.
The UN has until Friday to renew the mandate for observers in Syria, although a vote is expected in New York on Wednesday afternoon.
Western nations want a new resolution threatening measures short of the use of force.
The Western-backed draft resolution to be discussed gives the Syrian government 10 days to withdraw heavy weapons from cities and return troops to barracks, otherwise a further resolution on sanctions will be submitted to the Security Council.
With Russia resisting all efforts to persuade it to take a tougher line with Syria, there is virtually no hope of concerted international action to pull the country back from the brink.
About 16,000 people have died in Syria since protests against the Assad regime began in March last year.
Manaf Tlas, a Syrian general from a powerful family close to President Bashar al-Assad, has defected and is on his way to Paris, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has said.
Laurent Fabius described it as a “hard blow for the regime” that showed Bashar al-Assad’s entourage was beginning to realise the regime was unsustainable.
Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlas fled Syria via Turkey, his family confirmed.
If confirmed, it would be the highest-level defection since the unrest began.
Pro-government website Syriasteps said earlier Gen. Manaf Tlas had made an “escape”, adding the move was “insignificant”.
Earlier rumors about his possible defection in March proved to be false.
Speaking at a meeting of Friends of Syria in Paris, Laurent Fabius said: “A senior official from the Syrian regime, a commander in the Republican Guard, has defected and is headed to Paris.”
“[Bashar al- Assad’s] close entourage is beginning to understand that the regime is unsustainable,” he added.
“Even those close to Assad have begun to understand that one cannot support a slaughterer like Bashar al-Assad.”
His father, former Defence Minister Mustafa Tlas, is reportedly living in France.
Manaf Tlas, a Syrian general from a powerful family close to President Bashar al-Assad, has defected and is on his way to Paris
Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlas’s intentions may only become clear if and when he appears in public to outline his plans.
Amer al-Sadeq, a member of a Damascus-based opposition group, described the latest development as “a good sign”.
“Defecting soldiers, we see many of them, defecting officers, the more they come the better it is to make the regime weaker,” said Amer al-Sadeq.
Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlas, believed to be in his mid-40s, is a commander of a unit of the elite Republican Guard. As a young man he attended military training with President Bashar al-Assad.
Gen. Manaf Tlas has been under a form of home arrest since May 2011 because he opposed the security solution that the regime has been implementing, sources say.
He also was the first government official to meet the opposition back last year to try to start a dialogue and find a political solution to the 16-month crisis.
Unlike most of Syria’s Alawite leaders, the son of former Defence Minister Mustafa Tlas is a Sunni Muslim.
Syria’s majority Sunni community has been at the forefront of the revolt against the president and has borne the brunt of the state’s crackdown, which the UN estimates has left at least 10,000 people dead.
For decades, the Tlas family has given support to the Assad family, helping to ensure Bashar al-Assad’s succession to the presidency 12 years ago.
If Manaf Tlas’ permanent departure from Syria is confirmed, it would mark the first break of a member of President Bashar al-Assad’s close circle, correspondents say.
Observers believe that the move may encourage other Sunni officers to consider their allegiances.
Gen. Manaf Tlas’s departure comes as French President Francois Hollande is hosting a Paris Friends of Syria conference with representatives of more than 100 countries to try to find a way to end the violence in Syria.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged the representatives to persuade Russia and China to end their support for the Syrian regime.
“I ask you to reach out to Russia and China and to not only urge but demand that they get off the sidelines and begin to support the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people,” she said.
“I don’t think Russia and China believe they are paying any price at all, nothing at all, for standing up on behalf of the Assad regime.”
She also called on the UN Security Council to pass a resolution imposing immediate sanctions on Syria, including under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, allowing for the possibility of military force.
The Paris meeting follows similar events in Tunis and Istanbul which demanded tougher action against the Assad regime.
Russia and China, which both hold vetoes in the Security Council, are not at the meeting.
UN diplomats are working on a document calling for restrictions on commercial activity if Mr Assad fails to abide by UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s ceasefire plan and roadmap for a political transition.
The roadmap – announced last weekend by Annan after a meeting of world powers in Geneva – includes an interim government to enable the Syrian people to live ”independently and democratically”.
The Western powers believe that Bashar al-Assad should play no part in Syria’s future, but the roadmap allows President Assad an effective veto over any interim candidate he opposes.
Some 15,800 people have died in more than a year of violence in Syria, activists say.
Turkey begins rocket launchers and anti-aircraft guns deployment along its border with Syria after last week’s downing of a fighter jet.
Columns of military vehicles have been seen moving from military bases to the border, close to where the jet crashed.
The F-4 Phantom went down in the sea after entering Syrian airspace and being hit by a missile. The pilots are missing.
Meanwhile, explosions have been reported outside a court complex in central Damascus.
Syrian state TV said there had been a “terrorist explosion” in the car park of the palace of justice and witnesses spoke of a thick plume of smoke in the area.
There was no word of casualties but opposition activists said ambulances were heard heading to the scene.
There are also reports of clashes in the Damascus suburb of Douma, where activists say four people have been killed.
Turkey begins rocket launchers and anti-aircraft guns deployment along its border with Syria after last week’s downing of a fighter jet
Turkey’s decision to reinforce its border with Syria comes two days after PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a change in terms of its military engagement.
He told parliament that Syria was a “clear and present threat” and any game that is dangerous and “military element” that approached the Turkish border from Syria would be treated as a threat and a military target.
Extra troops have been sent to the area and Turkish TV has shown pictures of a small convoy of trucks carrying anti-aircraft guns into a military base near the border town of Yayladagi.
According to local reports, other military vehicles have travelled to the border town of Reyhanli in Hatay province.
More than 33,000 refugees have fled Syria and have crossed the border into the province.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul is due to discuss the heightened tensions with Syria at a National Security Council meeting on Thursday.
Russia and other major powers are considering a proposal from UN envoy Kofi Annan for a national unity government to lead political change in Syria.
Moscow has agreed to back the plan which, according to Western diplomats, proposes a cabinet including members of the opposition and government, but no-one who would undermine its credibility.
The idea will be discussed on Saturday by the UN Action Group on Syria.
Although Western diplomats say President Bashar al-Assad would not be part of any unity government, his future role in Syria is not spelled out in Kofi Annan’s proposal.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Thursday that President Bashar al-Assad’s future had to be decided through a “Syrian dialogue by the Syrian people themselves”, adding that Saturday’s Geneva conference could not dictate the terms of a unity government.
President Bashar al-Assad has described Syria as being in a “real state of war” and the UN’s deputy envoy to Syria said on Wednesday that the violence “had reached or even surpassed” the levels seen in April when Kofi Annan’s ceasefire plan was agreed.
The UN says at least 10,000 people have been killed since pro-democracy protests began in March 2011. In June, the Syrian government reported that 6,947 Syrians had died, including at least 3,211 civilians and 2,566 security forces personnel.
High-ranking Syrian military figures have defected to Turkey, reports in Turkish media say.
A general, two colonels, two majors and about 30 other soldiers are said to have crossed into Hatay province on Sunday night.
They were part of a group of some 200 people who crossed the border overnight into Monday, Anatolia news agency says.
Tensions between the two countries have escalated over the shooting down by Syria of a Turkish F-4 jet on Friday.
The two pilots were reported missing after their plane went down in the Mediterranean off the Syrian coast.
Syria has insisted the plane was engaged while in its airspace while Turkey insists it was in international airspace, 13 nautical miles from Syria, when it went down.
A general, two colonels, two majors and about 30 other soldiers are said to have crossed into Hatay province on Sunday night
In a news conference broadcast by Syrian state TV on Monday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said wreckage from the plane proved it had been shot down within Syrian waters.
“The Syrian defense forces used an anti-aircraft gun with the longest range of 1.2km. We can confirm the damage was caused by anti-aircraft fire. We didn’t use radar for this action.”
Syria was committed to good neighborly relations with Turkey, Jihad Makdissi said, adding that if Turkey responded positively, Syria would act accordingly.
The EU, which has urged Turkey to adopt a “restrained response”, is to extend its sanctions on Damascus in order to increase pressure on Bashar al-Assad’s government.
As the search in the Mediterranean continues for the F-4’s two pilots, Turkish media report that their boots have been found, but not their parachutes.
The Turkish cabinet discussed the crisis on Monday, a day before NATO ambassadors in Brussels were due to consider their response.
Ankara has invoked Article 4 of NATO’s charter, under which consultations can be requested when an ally feels its security is threatened.
More than 33,000 people have fled into Turkey since Syria’s violence began in March 2011.
The latest arrivals came over the border crossing near the town of Reyhanli.
They came with their families and were taken to Apaydin camp a few miles inside the border, Anatolia reports.
This is one of the biggest single groups of soldiers to defect to Turkey.
There has been a steady trickle of defections from the Syrian armed forces over the past year, most of them to opposition forces fighting inside the country.
So far there is no evidence that they have had a significant impact on the Syrian military’s ability to fight.
Turkey has openly supported the opposition Free Syrian Army which is largely made up of defectors.
The Turkish authorities say that 12 Syrian generals have already defected. Last week a Syrian air force pilot was granted political asylum after flying his plane to Jordan.
A senior UN human rights investigator is reported to have been allowed into Syria for the first time since the UN Human Rights Council set up a commission of inquiry into the escalation of violence.
Paulo Pinheiro is due to present his commission’s latest findings in Geneva on Wednesday. He is seeking to convince senior officials in Damascus to allow an investigation into a number of atrocities that have taken place.
The head of the UN observer mission has also had talks with Syrian government figures, nine days after his 300-strong team suspended its patrols in Syria because of the scale of the violence.
“We had a very professional exchange on that and we’ll see in the coming days what will happen next,” Maj. Gen. Robert Mood said.
Syria has decided to expel the ambassadors of several Western states, a week after governments around the world expelled its top diplomats.
The envoys of the US, UK, France and Turkey were among 17 diplomats designated “personae non gratae”.
President Bashar al-Assad blamed “foreign meddling” for Syria’s divisions in a speech on Sunday.
The move came as activists said at least seven people had been killed in violence across Syria on Tuesday.
Syria has decided to expel the ambassadors of several Western states, a week after governments around the world expelled its top diplomats
Four civilians were killed overnight in a “huge military operation” in Kafrouaid, a village in the Jabal al-Zawiya area of the northern province of Idlib, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Troops and pro-regime militiamen backed by tanks were also reported to have stormed the town of Kfar Zita in the central province of Hama, and killed two rebel fighters in the Mediterranean port city of Latakia.
Several villages south-west of the central city of Homs earlier came under intense army artillery- and mortar-fire, leaving three people dead, according to the Local Co-ordination Committees, an activist network.
Syrian activists say at least 70 people have been killed in an attack on a house in Hama.
They said several houses in the Mashaa at-Tayyar district in southern Hama were destroyed by a big explosion.
State media said 16 people died in the blast in a house used as a bomb factory by “armed terrorist groups”.
Meanwhile, a video has emerged which purportedly shows a man being buried alive by security forces, allegedly for sending material to TV stations.
The unnamed man, who is said to be a media activist, is seen pleading for his life as earth is shoveled over his head. He then goes silent.
The security forces are heard cursing him for receiving money for sending material to Arabic satellite TV stations.
Syrian activists say at least 70 people have been killed in an attack on a house in Hama
The video was leaked by sympathizers.
Following the blast in Hama, activists posted video on the internet showing a scene of devastation, with bodies being pulled from the rubble.
One report said 13 children and 15 women were among the dead.
They said the blast was caused by government shelling or even a Scud missile attack.
State television showed pictures of injured children in hospital and says that a group using the house to make bombs detonated them accidentally.
The reports cannot be independently verified owing to government restrictions on foreign media.
Continuing violence has been reported across Syria since a ceasefire was introduced earlier this month – including in towns where UN observers are present.
There are two observers currently stationed in Hama.
France now says the Security Council should consider the use of force in Syria if a UN-backed peace plan proposed by international envoy Kofi Annan fails to stop the violence.
The plan calls on Damascus to withdraw troops and heavy weapons from cities.
The UN has sent a small advance team of observers to Syria. Last weekend the Security Council approved the deployment of another 300.
The UN says about 9,000 people have died since pro-democracy protests began in March 2011. In February, the Syrian government put the death toll at 3,838 – 2,493 civilians and 1,345 security forces personnel.
The United Nations Security Council has been accused by Turkey PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan of indirectly supporting the oppression of the Syrian people by failing to unite on Syria.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the UN Security Council was standing by with its “hands and arms tied” while the Syrian people were dying every day.
Russia says Syria has promised to pull its forces from cities by 10 April.
In Damascus, the head of Red Cross has been meeting top Syrian officials.
Jakob Kellenberger has been trying to get Syria to allow aid workers better access to those who have been wounded or displaced by the conflict.
He will also press the Syrian authorities to implement a daily two-hour ceasefire, as stipulated in the peace plan proposed by the UN and Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the UN Security Council was standing by with its "hands and arms tied" while the Syrian people were dying every day
The president of the UN General Assembly, Nassir Abdulaziz al-Nasser, says he has asked Kofi Annan to brief the world body on his Syria peace mission.
No date has been set, but Nassir Abdulaziz al-Nasser said he had suggested 13 April, after the 10 April deadline for the military pullback and a mutual ceasefire has passed, our correspondent adds.
Russia’s foreign ministry says Syria’s government has informed Moscow it has started implementing Kofi Annan’s plan to end the unrest.
The ministry said in a statement that the Syrian ambassador to Moscow told Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov that Damascus had begun fulfilling its obligations under the plan, the Associated Press news agency reports.
The statement did not give any further details.
Kofi Annan’s spokesman, Ahmed Fawzi, said on Tuesday that an advance team from the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) would arrive in Damascus “in the next 48 hours” to discuss the deployment of international monitors.
The team would be made up of five to six people, he added.
The announcement comes the day after Kofi Annan urged the UN Security Council to set a deadline of 10 April for a ceasefire plan to come into force.
Syria says it has agreed to the deadline.
But activists say government forces have continued to attack opposition strongholds.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan said by not taking a decision on Syria, the UN Security Council had “indirectly supported the oppression. To stand by with your hands and arms tied while the Syrian people are dying every day is to support the oppression”.
He told members of parliament from his governing AK Party that Turkey would not turn its back on the Syrian people.
China and Russia have twice vetoed resolutions condemning President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for turning the army on civilians.
On Monday, Kofi Annan told the UN Security Council that President Assad had agreed to withdraw security forces from major population centres by 10 April, diplomats said.
Kofi Annan also asked the Security Council to plan for the deployment of UN observers to supervise the ceasefire by all parties, as set out in his peace plan.
UN officials and diplomats said the monitors would probably be drawn from other peacekeeping forces in the region and could not be established without an end to the fighting, agreement by all parties and a Security Council mandate.
The ceasefire is only one part of Kofi Annan’s peace plan, which also calls for a political process to address the “aspirations” of the Syrian people, release of detainees, delivery of humanitarian aid, free movement for journalists, and right to protest.