Diplomats on Thursday were seeking new approaches to remedy the worsening conflict in Syria as opposition activists reported that government shelling and attacks had killed more than 100 people, most of them in the embattled city of Homs.
After almost a weeklong siege, residents of Homs' Bab Amro neighborhood described scenes of blood-spattered field hospitals, bodies left unburied, terrified families staying in their homes to avoid gunfire and shortages of medicine, food, water and electricity.
"We want to evacuate our wounded and we can't," said a Bab Amro resident reached by Skype, who said he was among 20 people hiding out in a single room. "If the shelling continues, there will be no house standing in Homs."
Residents expressed fears of an impending ground assault by Syrian troops, who have been gathering on the outskirts of the neighborhood.
"The tanks are getting closer to Bab Amro," said another resident, who, like others contacted, did not give his name for security reasons. "People had bread stored, but there is nothing left."
The Local Coordination Committees, an opposition coalition, estimated that Thursday's death toll was at least 131, including 110 in Homs.
The casualty counts could not be verified because journalists' access to Syria is limited. The opposition has repeatedly called for some kind of international assistance. On Thursday, a group calling itself the Revolutionary Council of Homs pleaded for the establishment of "safe corridors" for the evacuation of the wounded and others from Homs.
World leaders seemed stymied in efforts to halt the bloodshed, which has played out graphically in amateur videos widely disseminated on the Internet.
"It's quite clear that this is a regime that is hell-bent on killing, murdering and maiming its own citizens," said British Prime Minister David Cameron during an official visit to Stockholm, reported London's Telegraph newspaper. "What we're seeing on our television screens is completely unacceptable."
In New York, United Nations Secretary-GeneralBan Ki-moon denounced the "appalling brutality" unfolding in Homs, "with heavy weapons firing into civilian neighborhoods," and warned that the carnage was "a grim harbinger of worse to come."
The U.N. and the Arab League were considering sending a joint observer mission to Syria, Ban said.
Diplomats have been seeking alternatives since Russia and China on Saturday blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution that included a call for President Bashar Assad to relinquish power.
So far, Washington and other foreign capitals have ruled out military intervention in Syria, though several U.S. lawmakers said this week that the Obama administration should consider arming Syria's rebels.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has proposed the creation of a group of "friends" that would support Syrians seeking a democratic transition in the country, which has been ruled by the Assad family for more than 40 years.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was in Washington for talks on Syria.
Turkey, a resurgent regional power that shares a more-than-500-mile-long border with Syria, is likely to be a key player in any new international plan for Syria. Turkey has joined Arab nations, the United States and many European countries in condemning the Syrian government.
It was unclear whether Russia or Syria would agree to an observer mission that would include the U.N. The prospective deployment of U.N. observers in the country would probably up the diplomatic ante and raise new questions, such as how U.N. personnel would be protected amid the spiraling violence.
However, pressure is clearly mounting for some kind of international response. The failure of the U.N. to act "is disastrous for the people of Syria," Ban said. "It has encouraged the Syrian government to step up its war on its own people."
Syrian authorities deny targeting civilians and say their forces are battling foreign-backed "terrorists," including Islamic extremists, in Homs and elsewhere, including the restive suburbs of Damascus and conflict zones near the Turkish, Lebanese and Jordanian borders.
Another town reported to be under siege was Zabadani, near the Lebanese frontier, which had fallen under rebel control. Opposition activists reported that hundreds of tanks had surrounded the town and were firing into it, as trapped residents sought cover.
Syrian authorities have been methodically seeking to retake villages, towns and neighborhoods captured by rebel groups. The Assad government appears to fear any "liberated" zones that could follow the path of Benghazi, the Libyan city that served as a capital for the insurgent force that ultimately toppled Moammar Kadafi.
Late last month, the Arab League suspended its observer mission in Syria, saying increasing violence had made it difficult for the team to do its work.
The observers were tasked with determining whether Syria was complying with an Arab League peace plan from November that called on the Assad government to withdraw military forces from residential areas, release political prisoners and begin a dialogue with the opposition.
Marrouch is a special correspondent.