BEIRUT A Syrian exile opposition group said on Monday it was preparing to arm anti-government rebels with foreign help, while activists and the government traded blame for a massacre in the city of Homs.
The dozens of killings in cold blood were carried out on a weekend when U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan was visiting Syria to seek agreement on a ceasefire, humanitarian access and political dialogue.
A spokesman for the Syrian National Council called on foreign powers to intervene and said the opposition group had already set up a coordinating bureau to send arms to the rebels with the help of foreign governments. He would not name the countries or the location of the bureau.
"We demand military intervention by Arab and Western countries to protect civilians," George Sabra told reporters at a news conference in Istanbul.
"We demand establishment of secured humanitarian corridors and zones to protect the civilians. We demand implementation of a no-fly zone over entire Syria to prevent Assad from continuing massacres."
A popular uprising against four decades of Assad family rule erupted a year ago and has become increasingly bloody as rebels fight a crackdown by security forces.
The United Nations estimates Syrian security forces have killed well over 7,500 people. The government says foreign-backed militants are behind the unrest and are responsible for the deaths of more than 2,500 members of the security forces.
"The Syrian government has failed to fulfil its responsibility to protect its own people and instead has subjected its citizens in several cities to military assault and disproportionate use of force," U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said. "These shameful operations continue."
Activists in Homs and state television showed videos of bloodied bodies, their hands tied behind their backs, lying on trash-littered streets and in blood spattered rooms. Opposition groups also uploaded videos of corpses being wrapped in white shrouds as crowds lined up to pray for the dead, who are believed to have been killed late on Sunday.
"Killings of civilians must end now," Annan told reporters in Ankara. "The world must send a clear and united message that this is simply unacceptable."
RAPES AND SLIT THROATS
Government restrictions on media access have made it hard to assess conflicting reports by the authorities and activists of the mass killing reported on Monday.
A medical worker in Homs working in the rebel-held neighbourhood of Khalidiya said activists did not find any survivors in the houses where killings took place.
"I saw two females who were raped, one was around 12 or 13 years old. She was covered in blood and her underclothes were off," said the medic, who called himself Yazan. "One of the women was strangled; she had bruises on her neck. Some of the bodies I saw, especially the children, had their throats slit."
Activists said militants loyal to Assad killed over 50 in a district of Homs called Karm al-Zeitoun. State news said militants committed the killings to influence the U.N. Security Council's special meeting on Monday to discuss Arab revolts.
"The terrorist armed groups have kidnapped scores of civilians in Homs, killed and mutilated their corpses and filmed them to be shown by media outlets," state news agency SANA said.
United Nations investigators on Monday said Syrian forces had used collective punishment against civilians and stand accused of carrying out executions and mass arrests in Baba Amr, where state forces routed rebel forces in a 26-day siege. Activists said hundreds were killed.
Syria's ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva rejected the panel's work as politicised and said al Qaeda fighters from 13 different countries had infiltrated Syria.
ASSAD "MUST STOP FIRST"
At a special U.N. Security Council meeting on Arab revolts, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Assad's forces must stop their violence first.
"Once the Syrian government has acted, then we would expect others as well to end the violence," she said.
"But there cannot be an expectation for defenceless citizens in the face of artillery assaults to end their capacity to defend themselves before there's a commitment by the Assad regime to do so."
Russia and China have blocked attempts to pass a Security Council resolution condemning Damascus for its attempts to crush the rebellion. They want both sides to be encouraged to stop fighting.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who wield heavy influence in the Arab League have taken a hawkish line, are calling for the rebels to be armed.
"How cynical that, even as Assad was receiving former (U.N) Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the Syrian Army was conducting a fresh assault on Idlib and continuing its aggression in Hama, Homs, and Rastan," Clinton told the Security Council.
The United States has drafted a new resolution, but Washington and Paris say they doubt it will be accepted.
"China has actively participated in discussion about this draft resolution, and raised its ideas about revising it," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said on Monday.
"We also support the international community playing an active role in a political solution to the Syria issue."
(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Yesmin Dikmen in Istanbul and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Erika Solomon and Alistair Lyon; Editing by Andrew Roche)