Image taken from a video on YouTube on June 8, shows smoke billowing behind a mosque in the flashpoint Syrian city of Homs. Army shelling and gunfire killed at least 83 civilians in protest towns, a watchdog said Saturday. AFP is using pictures from alternative sources as it was not authorised to cover this event and is not responsible for alterations which cannot be independently verified
AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE
DAMASCUS: Army shelling and gunfire killed at least 83 civilians in protest towns, a watchdog said, as Russia pushed its idea of an international conference including Iran to end the bloodshed in Syria.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also stressed that Moscow would "not sanction the use of force at the United Nations Security Council."
His proposal came as worldwide anger grows over the crackdown by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime on a revolt in which more than 13,500 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since March 2011.
Nine women and three children were among 20 people killed in a pre-dawn bombardment of a residential neighbourhood in the southern city of Daraa, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Dozens more were wounded, some of them seriously, in the city which was the birthplace of the uprising against Assad's rule, the British-based watchdog said.
In the central region of Homs 29 people were killed, including 12 victims of bombardment of the city of Homs, the Syrian observatory said. Three soldiers were also said to have died in clashes the north.
Activists in Latakia province reported that ambulances were ferrying wounded soldiers to the city from Al-Heffa, a base for rebel Free Syrian Army fighters in rugged countryside near the Turkish border.
Meanwhile, UN observers who visited the village of Al-Kubeir, where at least 55 people were killed earlier this week, said they saw blood on the walls and "a strong stench of burnt flesh."
The Al-Kubeir incident prompted Western governments to launch a push for tough new sanctions against Damascus. But Russia, along with China, has already vetoed two Security Council resolutions against Assad.
Diplomats in New York said Britain, France and the United States would quickly draw up a Security Council resolution proposing sanctions against Syria following a grim report from the monitors on their visit to Al-Kubeir.
UN officials have made clear they believe government forces and their allies were behind the attack on the mainly Sunni Muslim village surrounded by an Alawite population loyal to Assad.
Damascus denied responsibility and blamed foreign-backed "terrorists."
Russia on Saturday pushed the idea of an international conference on the more than 15-month-old crisis in Syria, with the Arab state's ally Iran also given a place at the table despite US opposition.
"We want this event to be effective," Lavrov told reporters.
"To say that Iran doesn't have a place because it is already to blame for everything and it's part of the problem and not part of the solution, this is thoughtless to say the least from the point of view of serious diplomacy."
Russia has said a conference on Syria was needed to overcome differences over how the peace plan of UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan should be implemented.
Lavrov said permanent Security Council members Russia, the United States, France, Britain and China, Syria's neighbours including Lebanon and Jordan, as well as the European Union and Arab League should take part in the conference.
Moscow wants to hold the forum "as soon as possible", Lavrov said, without elaborating.
He again reaffirmed Russian opposition to the use of force. "We will not sanction the use of force at the United Nations Security Council," he said.
Lavrov added that Moscow would be "glad" to support Assad's departure but only if Syrians themselves agreed on it.
Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, has called Iran a "spoiler" and said it is "part of the problem in Syria." The United States has accused Iran of arming Assad's forces.
The main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, voiced doubt about involving Iran in any conference on the future of Syria.
"We are not against this idea in principle but in practice I do not see how we can bring states which still support the crimes of this regime to a conference whose goal is to find a solution," the SNC's outgoing leader Burhan Ghalioun said at a meeting in Istanbul to choose his successor.
Leaders of the exiled Syrian National Council were meeting in Istanbul to pick a new leader after the resignation of Burhan Ghalioun.
He resigned on May 17 after activists accused him of ignoring the Local Coordination Committees, which spearhead anti-government protests on the ground, and of allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to play a leading role within the bloc.
Sources in the group said the aim was to pick a "consensus" candidate acceptable to Islamists, liberals and nationalists. Abdel Basset Sayda, a Kurd and member of the SNC's executive, was tipped to take over.
The new leader will face the challenge of boosting the SNC's credibility with activists and rebels inside Syria, as well as with the international community.