The unrest in Syria edged closer to an all-out armed conflict on Monday as 41 people were killed, including 11 soldiers reportedly in clashes with army defectors, as the UN chief urged an immediate end to the bloodletting.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that 27 people, most of them civilians but some of them police, were killed in the flashpoint city of Homs as President Bashar al-Assad's regime pressed its brutal crackdown on dissent.
Three other civilians, including a 13-year-old boy, were also shot dead in other parts of the country, the Britain-based Observatory said.
"Gunmen suspected of being army defectors blew up a bomb by remote control as an army vehicle passed by Ehssem in the countryside of the (northwestern province of Idlib), killing an officer and three soldiers, and wounding others," the Observatory's Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP in Nicosia.
The Britain-based watchdog said that another seven soldiers were killed in clashes with gunmen suspected too of being army defectors in the flashpoint central province of Homs.
Analysts have warned that the longer the repression continues, the more chance there is of opposition groups taking up arms, while UN human rights chief Navi Pillay warned at the weekend that Syria risked "a full-blown civil war."
Pillay said that more than 3,000 people, including 187 children, have been killed in the crackdown on anti-regime protests.
Earlier this month, a top army defector now living across the border in Turkey called for military aid to help his armed opposition group topple the Damascus regime.
Colonel Riad al-Assad, who defected in July, appealed for weapons for the "Syrian Free Army" he has set up.
"If the international community helps us, then we can do it, but we are sure the struggle will be more difficult without arms," he said in the interview published by the English-language Hurriyet Daily News.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon meanwhile urged Assad to immediately stop the killings of civilians, a day after the Arab League called for "national dialogue" to end the violence.
"There are continuous killings of civilian people. These killings must stop immediately," Ban said in Bern.
"I told Assad: 'Stop before it is too late'," he said.
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"It is unacceptable that 3,000 people have been killed. The UN is urging him again to take urgent action."
Ban also called on Assad to accept an international commission of inquiry into rights violations ordered by the UN Human Rights Council in April. Damascus has blocked investigators from entering the country.
The Observatory reported that scores of soldiers were also wounded in confrontations Monday with suspected army defectors, including at least 17 in Idlib province.
The watchdog said 27 people died Monday, including policemen, as the army and security forces carried out raids in Homs, which has been one of the centres of the unprecedented protests against Assad's 11-year rule that have swept the country since mid-March.
"Twenty-seven people, some civilians and others police officers, were killed in Homs on Monday during operations by the army and the security services in several neighbourhoods of the city," the Observatory said.
Troops shot dead three other civilians -- one in Idlib province in the northwest and two in Hama, including a 13-year-old boy in Hama, a protest centre north of Homs, the watchdog added.
The Local Coordination Committees, an activist network spurring protests, meanwhile issued a statement accusing security forces of intensifying their crackdown on doctors who treat wounded demonstrators.
"Security forces recently intensified their campaign against doctors, hospitals and private clinics suspected of treating people wounded in pro-freedom rallies" without notifying security services, the LCC said.
Doctors are required to immediately notify security services of the arrival of a wounded person, regardless of the severity of his injuries, which invariably leads to the patient's arrest, it said.
The Violations Documenting Centre, a partner of the activist network, said 250 doctors and pharmacists have been arrested since mid-March, 25 of them in the past few weeks.
The violence in Syria prompted Arab foreign ministers to hold an emergency meeting on Sunday at Arab League headquarters in Cairo.
Ministers agreed to renew contact with the Syrian government and opposition groups to spur the launch of a national dialogue within 15 days.
Assad's regime blames "armed gangs" for the violence that has wracked Syria for the past seven months, but activists say most of the deaths are caused by security forces putting down non-violent protests.