Syrian rebels summarily executed at least 20 soldiers in second city Aleppo, a watchdog said Monday, as UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi admitted he faced a "very difficult" task in his bid to end the nearly 18-month conflict.
The Syrian government's traditional ally Moscow called for a peace conference involving all parties to the conflict, warning of the risks of a complete collapse of central authority as happened in Somalia in the early 1990s.
"I know perfectly well that the mission is very difficult but I had no right to refuse to try to help the Syrian people," Brahimi told reporters in Cairo on his first visit to the region since taking up his post earlier this month.
"I am at the service of the Syrian people alone. My only boss is the Syrian people. The only interest of the United Nations and the Arab League is the Syrian people," the envoy said.
The soldiers executed were captured at a military compound during a rebel attack in the Hanano district of east Aleppo, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
They had their eyes blindfolded and hands tied behind their backs before they were lined up and shot, sometime over the weekend, Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
Amateur video posted on YouTube and distributed by the Observatory showed some 20 bodies laid out next to each other on a pavement. Many of the men's heads were covered in blood, and some were wearing jeans rather than full military attire.
One of the rebels standing next to the bodies held up his hand to make a victory sign. "Allahu Akbar!" (God is greatest), cried another, as a third shouted out at the bodies: "You dogs! You low lifes!"
Reports of the executions came as Syrian MiG warplanes blitzed areas of Aleppo, dropping two bombs at a time and then opening up with machinegun fire, an AFP correspondent reported.
Helicopter gunships also flew over the city causing panic on the streets as residents fled for safety, the correspondent reported.
The Observatory said at least five people died in morning bombing raids on the Marjeh, Sakhur, Hanano, Tariq al-Bab and Sheikh Khodr neighbourhoods of Aleppo, among a total of 95 civilians killed nationwide, 63 of them civilians.
Moscow, which has been increasingly critical of the West for its championing of the Syrian opposition, said it was time for a comprehensive peace agreement similar to that which ended the civil war in neighbouring Lebanon.
Signup to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter!
"We are proposing to our Western partners the organisation of a 'Taif conference' between all the players of the conflict," Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov said alluding to a 1989 peace deal signed in the Saudi city between the parties to the Lebanese civil war.
"This conference should bring together opposition and regime figures, as well as Christian, Alawite and Druze community members," Bogdanov added, referring to Syria's minority communities, including the dominant Alawite elite of President Bashar al-Assad.
"Given the opposition divisions and the weapons reaching the rebels, the risk of a Somalia-isation of Syria is real, if the regime were to suddenly collapse tomorrow. We must do all we can to avoid this disintegration of a centralised state," he told France's Le Figaro newspaper in an article to appear Wednesday.
A UN enquiry has accused the army, pro-government militia and the rebels of committing war crimes but has said that violations by the rebels are on a much lower scale.
Brahimi said he plans to go to Damascus "in a few days" to meet officials and civil society members. Asked if he will meet the Syrian president, he said: "I hope to but I don't know."
Brahimi's spokesman Ahmad Fawzi has said the date of the envoy's visit to Syria would be fixed once his programme of meetings is finalised.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon called for all war criminals in Syria to be brought to justice, as his human rights chief urged a probe into the slaughter late last month of hundreds of people in the Damascus suburb of Daraya.
Defected general Manaf Tlass said that French secret agents helped him escape from Syria, where he had long been a member of Assad's inner circle.
"The French (intelligence) services helped me get out of Syria and I thank them for that," said Tlass, whose July 6 defection was hailed in the West as a major setback for Assad.
A general in the elite Republican Guard charged with protecting the regime, Tlass is the son of former defence minister Mustafa Tlass, a close friend of Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad.
His defection was welcomed by the opposition umbrella group the Syrian National Council as an "enormous blow" to Assad.
But he has faced criticism from Syrian rebels, who say he and his 80-year-old father, who lives in Paris, should have made their positions clear at the very start of the anti-Assad uprising in March last year.