The head of the U.N. observer force in Syria has accused both rebels and government troops of stoking violence in the country, a charge that comes as Russia hardens its position against Western pressure to topple embattled President Bashar al-Assad.
Major General Robert Mood said Friday that fighting over the past 10 days has been "willingly intensified by both parties, with losses on both sides and significant risks to our observers." He said the escalating attacks could prompt his unarmed force to pull out.
The Syrian government continued its offensive against rebel-held areas Friday. Fierce fighting was reported throughout Aleppo province and in the central city of Homs.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces are also shelling opposition areas and clashing with rebels in Douma and Damascus. Scores of people have been killed over the past few days amid the intensified fighting.
Russia denies post-Assad planning
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied his government is discussing plans for a political transformation in Syria. He said Russia does "not get involved in overthrowing regimes - neither through approval of unilateral actions by the U.N. Security Council nor by participation in any political plots."
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland suggested Thursday Washington and Moscow were discussing a post-Assad strategy for Syria.
In an interview on French radio, France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said discussions among U.S., French and Russian officials -- along with international mediator Kofi Annan -- are underway to prepare for a Syria without its current leader.
Russia, along with China, has vetoed two U.N. Security Council resolutions against Assad and has vowed to oppose any military intervention.
With international efforts to mediate an end to the bloody conflict stalled, members of Syria's fractured opposition met in Istanbul Friday in an attempt to settle their differences and present a unified front.
Opposition leader Ammar al-Qurabi said their aim is not necessarily to find a replacement for President Assad, but to bring democracy to Syria.
"The problem is not about the shape or any umbrella," he said. "We discuss paper, we discuss democracy. The people fight Assad because they hate the dictatorship."
The meeting, which includes delegates from the U.S., Britain, and France, comes as world powers made tentative plans to hold a June 30 summit in Geneva to revive international envoy Kofi Annan's shattered U.N.-backed peace plan.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch said Friday that Syrian forces are using sexual violence to torture men, women, and boys detained during the country's 15-month anti-government uprising.
The New York-based rights group released a statement saying soldiers and pro-government armed militias are sexually abusing girls as young as 12 years old. The group based its report on interviews with former detainees who described being sexually abused or witnessing abuses, including rape, beatings and electric shocks.
The group says it documented more than 20 incidents of sexual assault between March 2011 and March 2012, with most of the cases occurring in Homs.