BEIRUT — Syria's fragmented opposition took steps toward forming a national council Tuesday, but serious divisions and mistrust among the members prevented them from presenting a unified front against President Bashar Assad's regime more than five months into the country's uprising, participants said.
Syria's opposition, fragmented by years of sectarian and ideological tensions, has made unprecedented gains against the regime, but there is no clear leadership or platform beyond the demands for more freedom and for Assad to step down.
With Assad's forces cracking down on the protests, the overall death toll has reached 2,200, the United Nations said this week.
A group of opposition members have been meeting in neighboring Turkey in recent days, but participants gave conflicting reports about exactly what emerged. Obeida al-Nahhas told The Associated Press that a council had been formed but the details were still being completed; others said there was no council to speak of yet.
"People are just beginning to form an opposition and so they are treading carefully. This is understandable," said Mahmud Osman, an opposition member at the meeting in Turkey. "We don't claim to represent the whole of Syria. But we are talking to everyone and we are trying to build a consensus."
The unrest in Syria shows no sign of abating, with both sides of the conflict energized. Protesters pour into the streets every Friday, defying the near-certain barrage of shelling and sniper fire. But the regime is strong as well and in no imminent danger of collapse, setting the stage for what could be a drawn-out and bloody stalemate.
Assad has shrugged off broad international condemnation and calls for him to step down, insisting that armed gangs and thugs are driving the violence, not true reform-seekers.
Activists said Tuesday that Syrian security forces killed at least seven people in the central city of Homs on Monday, soon after a U.N. humanitarian team left the area because the security situation was deteriorating.
Amateur videos posted online by activists showed crowds of people crowding around cars with the blue U.N. flag, flashing banners that read: "We will never stop until we get our freedom."
The protesters chanted for freedom and the downfall of the Assad regime.
Syria has banned foreign media and severely restricted local coverage, making it nearly impossible to confirm events on the ground.
Syria had granted the U.N. team permission to visit some areas to assess humanitarian needs, but activists and a Western diplomat have accused the regime of trying to scrub away signs of the crackdown.
Residents and activists said it was quiet until the team left, after which troops opened fire on an anti-government protest, killing four. Gunmen also killed three others elsewhere in Homs, which has become a hotbed of dissent against Assad, human rights groups said.
U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said she was "shocked" at reports of protesters being killed and injured after the U.N. visit and called on Syrian authorities "to ensure that people are allowed to protest peacefully and in safety."
The U.N.'s top human rights body voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to demand that Syria end its crackdown and cooperate with an international probe into possible crimes against humanity.
European nations and the United States, meanwhile, circulated a draft U.N. Security Council resolution Tuesday seeking an arms embargo and other sanctions aimed at stopping the crackdown. But they faced immediate opposition from veto-wielding Russia, whose ambassadorr said it was not the right time for sanctions.
Also Tuesday, the U.S. State Department said Ambassador Robert Ford visited the country's south, while denying that he received prior permission from the Syrian government. An official at the U.S. Embassy described it as a "short and routine" trip to the village of Jassem near the southern city of Daraa. The area has been witnessing large anti-government protests.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Ford informed the Syrian government after the visit and explained that he did not ask for permission in advance "because they haven't been approving any visits, by anybody, anywhere." She said he stayed only four hours in order not to "make life difficult" for the residents.
A trip last month by the U.S. and French ambassadors to the central city of Hama to express support for protesters drew swift condemnation from the Syrian government, which said the unauthorized visits were proof that Washington was inciting violence in the Arab nation.
The Syrian foreign minister then warned both ambassadors not to travel outside the capital without permission.
The Local Coordination Committees and the London-based Observatory for Human Rights, two activist groups with a wide network of sources on the ground, reported that security forces stormed several villages in the southern and northern parts of the country, arresting scores on Tuesday.
AP Writer Suzan Fraser contributed to this report from Ankara, Turkey.
Zeina Karam can be reached on http://twitter.com/zkaram