The UN Security Council was to examine the future of its observer mission in violence-wracked Syria on Tuesday as civilians remained pinned down by regime shelling of rebel strongholds.
The mission's leader Major General Robert Mood, whose 300 unarmed monitors suspended operations on Saturday because of escalating bloodshed, was to brief the Security Council.
More than 3,300 people have been killed in violence across Syria since the observers were deployed in the strife-torn country in mid-April. Their 90-day initial mandate runs out on July 20.
With civilians trapped by regime shelling of rebel bastions such as the central city of Homs, Mood has urged the government and opposition to let "women, children, the elderly and the injured to leave conflict zones."
And UN rights chief Navi Pillay has demanded a halt to government bombardment of populated areas. "Such actions amount to crimes against humanity and possible war crimes," Pillay told the UN Human Rights Council.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says 1,000 families are stranded in Homs, while the opposition Syrian National Council says Homs is under siege by thousands of soldiers and pro-regime militiamen.
The authorities on Tuesday said they had been working for the past week in coordination with the UN observers to arrange an evacuation but charged that "armed terrorist groups" were keeping civilians hostage.
They also urged "all those who can press the armed groups not to target innocent civilians" accusing the gunmen of using the civilians as "human shields."
Latest fighting between rebels and soldiers was centred on the Homs district of Baba Amr, which the regime captured in March, the Observatory said, adding that columns of black smoke were seen above the area and a pipeline blasted.
It said one soldier was killed and reported "intermittent shelling" of several neighbourhoods of the flashpoint city, while a civilian was shot dead overnight in the northern city of Aleppo during an anti-regime demonstration.
Government troops shelled the northern Damascus suburb of Douma, killing five people, and pounded the Qalamun district of the province, the watchdog said, as at least 14 people were killed across Syria on Tuesday.
"In order to stop the bloodshed in Syria, we call for an immediate cessation of all violence," the two leaders said in a statement after meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico.
Putin told reporters that he and Obama had found "many common points" on the 15-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad that monitors say has cost more than 14,400 lives.
But there was little sign they had agreed on concrete means to end the conflict, following US frustration at Russia's blocking of Security Council moves against Assad.
Washington, London and Paris are working on a new UN Council resolution in which they want to threaten sanctions against Assad. But Russia, Syria's main international ally, and China have already previously blocked two resolutions.
Moscow news reports, meanwhile, said Russia is preparing to send two amphibious assault ships and marines to the Syrian port of Tartus where Russia has a naval base to ensure the safety of its nationals,
In another development, a Russian ship carrying attack helicopters and missiles destined for Syria was halted off the Scottish coast after its British insurer withdrew cover for the vessel.
Insurer Standard Club said it had cancelled insurance for the MV Alaed, owned by Femco, a Russian cargo line. "We were made aware of the allegations that the Alaed was carrying munitions destined for Syria," Femco said in a statement provided to AFP.
The MV Alaed picked up its cargo of Mi-25 helicopter gunships from Russia's Baltic sea port of Kaliningrad, where they had been sent for servicing and repairs, according to Britain's Sunday Telegraph newspaper.
In New York, diplomats raised doubts about the viability of the UN observer mission.
"I think there will be a lot of member states of the council, including us, who will be questioning now what the future is for the mission and, therefore, by extension the Annan plan," said Britain's UN ambassador Mark Lyall Grant.
Jordan, meanwhile, has tightened border controls to prevent Assad loyalists from infiltrating into the kingdom, a Syrian opposition official said.
Source: AFP Global Edition