* Heavy fighting in Latakia province
* Syria bans 17 diplomats
* Peace plan in tatters (Adds background, Saudi comment)
By Mariam Karouny and Erika Solomon
BEIRUT, June 5 (Reuters) - Syria's government banned 17 Western diplomats and its helicopter gunships pounded rebels in a coastal province on Tuesday as President Bashar al-Assad defied international pressure to halt his campaign to crush the uprising against his rule.
The declaration that ambassadors from the United States, Canada, Turkey and several European countries were unwelcome was retaliation for the expulsion of Syrian envoys from their capitals last week, following the massacre of more than 100 civilians by suspected Assad loyalists.
On the battlefront, rebels fought with government forces backed by helicopter gunships in the heaviest clashes in coastal Latakia province since the revolt broke out 15 months ago.
It was the second day of combat since the rebels declared they would no longer abide by an internationally brokered ceasefire, saying that the government had continued the repression in defiance of United Nations peace observers.
Rebel fighters said eight of their comrades were killed, while the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 15 to 20 soldiers were killed.
Activists also reported heavy fire by government forces on the city of Homs, a focal point of the uprising that endured a bloody siege for weeks earlier this year.
The latest developments emphasised the precarious state of a peace plan brokered by Nobel Peace laureate Kofi Annan, who has shuttled between Damascus and other capitals on behalf of the United Nations and Arab League.
Foreign governments are still clinging to the plan as the only option for finding a political solution and preventing a wider and bloodier conflict. But with the failure of the ceasefire and Assad's intransigence, it is all but in tatters.
In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said Gulf Arab states had begun to lose hope that the peace plan would find a solution.
The comments are significant as Sunni-ruled Gulf countries have led international efforts to oust Assad, who is allied to Shi'ite Iran, and have hinted in the past they were willing to arm the rebels.
Nevertheless, Russia and China, Assad's principle defenders on the diplomatic front, said on Tuesday that Annan's efforts should not be abandoned.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao, meeting in Beijing, urged international support for the plan despite calls from Arab and Western states for a tougher response to the bloodshed.
The two countries, permanent members of the U.N. Security Council with the power to veto resolutions, have stymied efforts by Western powers to condemn or call for the removal of Assad.
The United Nations says Assad's forces have killed more than 10,000 people since the uprising against his family's four-decade rule of Syria broke out in March 2011.
Assad says he is fighting to save the country from foreign-backed "terrorists" and will carry out his own reform programme. The government says more than 2,700 soldiers or security personnel have been killed by opposition forces.
Opposition fighters appear to have stepped up assassinations of government loyalists in recent months - two army officers were assassinated on Tuesday in northeastern Deir al-Zor province, according to state news agency SANA.
Syria's Foreign Ministry said the move to declare the 17 Western diplomats personae non grata was a response to the coordinated expulsions of Syrian envoys by 10 countries last week over the massacre at Houla.
But it was still open to re-establishing ties on a basis of "principles of equality and mutual respect," a ministry statement said.
"We waited for so long for the other side to correct their policies and offer the needed support to Annan's plan and the observers' mission. But we regret that we had to take this measure because they do not want this mission to succeed," Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Makdad said in Damascus.
The diplomats, most of them ambassadors, included envoys from the United States, Canada, Britain, France and Turkey. Most had already left Syria.
Turkey is a former Assad ally and now a strong opponent which has provided haven to army defectors, rebels and refugees.
A Turkish official said almost 2,700 Syrians had fled to Turkey during the first five days of June, mostly into Hatay, a southeastern province that juts into Syrian territory. That brought the total of Syrians registered in camps to about 2,700.
Villagers close to the border told Reuters that in the past few days Syrian soldiers had torched forested areas to destroy cover for armed insurgents suspected of operating there.
Videos uploaded by rebels showed clouds of smoke rising from mountainous areas close to Turkey.
The clashes in Latakia province were a rare surge of violence in a province outside the usual trail of bloodshed.
The head of the British-based Syrian Observatory, Rami Abdelrahman, said the fighting was in mostly Sunni areas in and around the city of Haffeh. Ambulances were seen rushing through the city carrying government casualties.
Latakia province is home to several towns inhabited by members of the minority Alawite sect, a Shi'ite offshoot to which Assad himself belongs. (Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes and Dominic Evans in Beirut, Can Sezer in Turkey; Writing by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Jon Boyle)
BEFORE YOU GO
07/13/2012 1:00 PM EDT
Car Bomb In Damascus
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)
07/13/2012 12:00 PM EDT
Susan Rice Condemns Killings
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.
07/13/2012 11:58 AM EDT
Russia Condemns Massacre
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.
07/13/2012 11:55 AM EDT
Footage Of Massacre Aftermath (WARNING: VIDEO CONTAINS DISTURBING IMAGES)
The Associated Press obtained a video that purports to show the aftermath of an alleged massacre in the village of Tramseh, near Hama.
07/13/2012 9:34 AM EDT
How Do Syrian Fighters Get Their Arms?
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.
07/13/2012 9:10 AM EDT
Activists Report New Massacre (WARNING: GRAPHIC PHOTOS)
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)
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)
07/12/2012 6:50 PM EDT
Hama Revolutionary Council: More Than 220 Killed
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.
07/12/2012 6:17 PM EDT
Syrian State TV: 'Large Numbers Of Terrorists Killed'
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
07/12/2012 5:36 PM EDT
Update: Death Toll In New Massacre Reportedly More Than 200
@ Reuters :
UPDATE: DEATH TOLL IN SYRIAN FORCES' ATTACK ON VILLAGE IN SYRIA'S HAMA REGION IS MORE THAN 200, MOSTLY CIVILIANS - OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS