Syrian security forces have launched a ground assault on the besieged city of Homs, in an attempt to overrun rebel-held districts that have endured nearly a month of bombardment that killed hundreds and left residents in desperate peril.
Activists said Wednesday that government troops were trying to enter the opposition Baba Amr and al-Inshaat neighborhoods, where fierce confrontations with the rebel Free Syrian Army were taking place. A Syrian official vowed Baba Amr would be "cleansed" within hours.
In recent days, opposition sources had reported the Syrian military was massing elite Fourth Armored Division troops and tanks under the command of President Bashar al-Assad's brother, Maher, around the city in preparation for a final assault.
At least three Western journalists remain trapped in Baba Amr, although Syrian activists smuggled British photographer Paul Conroy to safety in neighboring Lebanon Tuesday in an escape during which some of his rescuers were killed.
Activists said troops also entered the central town of Halfaya in Hama province after five days of intense shelling. They said the rebel-held town of Rastan, just north of Homs, was shelled and that casualties were reported.
Related video clip:
Meanwhile, Kofi Annan, the newly appointed United Nations-Arab League envoy for Syria, said he will discuss the situation Wednesday with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and member states in New York. He will then go to Cairo for talks with Arab League head Nabil Elaraby.
U.N. political chief Lynn Pascoe said Mr. Assad's deadly crackdown on the nearly year-long opposition uprising has killed "well over 7,500" people. He told the U.N. Security Council Tuesday that "credible reports" from Syria indicate more than 100 civilians are killed every day, "including many women and children."
France said Tuesday diplomats have begun drafting a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for an immediate end to violence in Syria so that humanitarian aid can be delivered to communities under weeks of government assault.
China also issued calls for a humanitarian response and a halt to fighting.
Russia and China have twice vetoed Western- and Arab-backed council resolutions that would have condemned Damascus for its deadly crackdown. Diplomats say Western powers and their Arab partners hope that focusing a new resolution on Syria's humanitarian situation will make it difficult for Moscow and Beijing to cast a third veto.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday that al-Qaida and other militants are taking advantage of the situation in Syria, and that now is not the time to "further militarize the situation."
Syrian officials blame the uprising on foreign-backed armed "terrorists" whom the government says have killed more than 2,000 security personnel. The revolt against Mr. Assad's autocratic rule has become increasingly militarized in recent months with Syrian army defectors joining a loosely-organized rebel force.
The new death toll provided by the U.N. Tuesday represents an increase of 2,100 from the figure it gave last month.
U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said a humanitarian cease-fire must be declared in Syria immediately to stop "serious rights abuses" by security forces against civilians. She made the plea at a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva. Syrian envoy Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui walked out of the session in protest.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.