BEIRUT -- The head of the U.N. observers' mission in Syria demanded Sunday that warring parties allow the evacuation of women, children, elderly and sick people endangered by fighting in the besieged city of Homs and other combat zones.

Maj. Gen. Robert Mood said the observers had been trying for the past week to bring out families and wounded trapped in Homs by heavily shelling of rebel-held areas. The offensive is part of a broader push by President Bashar Assad's forces to regain rebel-held villages and towns throughout the country.

"The parties must reconsider their position and allow women, children, the elderly and the injured to leave conflict zones without any preconditions and ensure their safety," Mood said in a statement. U.N. "attempts to extract civilians from the line of fire over the past week have been unsuccessful."

"This requires willingness on both sides to respect and protect the human life of the Syrian people," he added.

On Saturday, the U.N. said its 300 observers based in Syria were suspending all missions because of concerns for their safety after fighting intensified over the previous 10 days. But the monitors said they were remaining in Syria in Damascus.

A U.N. official told The Associated Press earlier Sunday that a team of observers had left Damascus for Homs, hoping to evacuate civilians. The plan was not made public for fear that would compromise the mission. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The official said the plan was to arrange a brief cease-fire of up to 90 minutes during which the civilians would have been evacuated from rebel-held areas of Homs through a safe corridor. He said the mission was approved by the Syrian government. But the fighting never eased enough to allow the evacuations.

Regime forces have been waging a fierce offensive through towns and villages nationwide, trying to root out rebels by shelling urban areas with tanks and attacking from helicopters. Rebels also have attacked Syrian forces, mostly trying to burn tanks.

The activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least eight soldiers were shot and killed in one rebel attack, and some 30 Syrian civilians and rebels were killed across the country Sunday.

"The humanitarian situation in Homs is very difficult," said Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the British-based Observatory. "It is very clear that the army wants to retake Homs."

The Observatory asked the U.N. on Saturday to intervene in Homs to evacuate 1,000 families the group said were trapped by violence along with dozens of wounded people in rebel-controlled areas who could not get medicine or doctors to treat them.

On Sunday, clashes appeared particularly intense in the central city of Homs and its surrounding provinces as well as in the town of Douma on the fringes of the Syrian capital, said the Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees, another activist group.

Amateur video showed plumes of smoke wafted over Homs as the sound of gunfire echoed and shells appeared to slam into concrete and metal.

In the nearby city of Rastan, amateur video showed the mangled bodies of two brothers struck by a shell. The videos, like claims by the government and activists, could not be independently verified because the Syrian government does not allow reporters or rights groups to work independently in the country.

In Douma, rebels opened fire on a bus of soldiers, killing eight of them, according to the Observatory and amateur footage of the event that showed the men in Syrian military uniforms lying bloodied on the ground.

The statement calling off U.N. observer patrols reinforced fears that Syria is sliding ever closer to civil war 15 months after the rebellion to oust Assad began. Opposition groups say more than 14,000 civilians and rebels have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011.

The Observatory says more than 3,400 soldiers and militiamen loyal to the government have also been killed.

The U.N. observers are the only working part of a peace plan brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan. The international community saw that plan as its only hope to stop the bloodshed.

It called for the foreign monitors to check compliance with a cease-fire that was supposed to go into effect on April 12, but never took hold. They have become the most independent witnesses to the carnage on both sides as government and rebel forces ignored the truce.

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syria car bomb Syrian policemen inspect the site of a car bomb explosion on Mazzeh highway in the capital Damascus on July 13, 2012. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/GettyImages)


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U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice tweets:

@ AmbassadorRice : #Syria regime turned artillery, tanks and helicopters on its own men & women. It unleashed knife-wielding shabiha gangs on its own children.

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Russia says international envoy Kofi Annan will visit Moscow on Monday to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria. Russia also called for an inquiry into an alleged massacre that took place in the village of Tramseh on Thursday. "We have no doubt that this wrongdoing serves the interests of those powers that are not seeking peace but persistently seek to sow the seeds of interconfessional and civilian conflict on Syrian soil," Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement, according to Reuters. Moscow did not apportion blame for the killings.

Read more on Reuters.com.

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The Associated Press obtained a video that purports to show the aftermath of an alleged massacre in the village of Tramseh, near Hama.

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How do Syria's fighters get their arms? An overview put together by Reuters explains that there are three gateways to the country -- Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.

Syrian rebels are smuggling small arms into Syria through a network of land and sea routes involving cargo ships and trucks moving through Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, maritime intelligence and Free Syrian Army (FSA) officers say.

Western and regional powers deny any suggestion they are involved in gun running. Their interest in the sensitive border region lies rather in screening to ensure powerful weapons such as surface to air missiles do not find their way to Islamist or other militants.

Read the full report here.

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syria This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a victim wounded by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. The accounts, some of which claim more than 200 people were killed in the violence Thursday, could not be independently confirmed, but would mark the latest in a string of brutal offensives by Syrian forces attempting to crush the rebellion. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)


syria This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a man mourning a victim killed by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)


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According to the Hama Revolutionary Council, a Syrian opposition group, more than 220 people have been killed in a new alleged massacre in Taramseh. Earlier reports said more than 100 people were killed. "More than 220 people fell today in Taramseh," the Council said in a statement. "They died from bombardment by tanks and helicopters, artillery shelling and summary executions."

Fadi Sameh, an opposition activist from Taramseh, told Reuters he had left the town before the reported massacre but was in touch with residents. "It appears that Alawite militiamen from surrounding villages descended on Taramseh after its rebel defenders pulled out, and started killing the people. Whole houses have been destroyed and burned from the shelling," Sameh claimed.

Read more on Reuters.com.

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Syrian activist Rami Jarrah tweets that Syrian State TV has confirmed deaths in Tremseh. "Terrorists" is often the term used by the Syrian regime for opposition forces.

@ AlexanderPageSY : Syrian State TV: clashes between security apparatus & terrorists in #Tremseh of #Hama leaves large numbers of terrorists killed #Syria

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@ Reuters : UPDATE: DEATH TOLL IN SYRIAN FORCES' ATTACK ON VILLAGE IN SYRIA'S HAMA REGION IS MORE THAN 200, MOSTLY CIVILIANS - OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS

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@ Reuters : At least 100 killed in Syrian village: opposition activists http://t.co/FG3fJwu8

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