Two Western journalists were among 26 people killed on Wednesday as Syrian forces pounded the rebel city of Homs, activists said, while calls mounted for a truce to allow in humanitarian aid.
The latest barrage came a day after security forces killed at least 68 across the country, adding to an overall toll of 7,636 since anti-regime protests erupted last March, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The toll includes 5,542 civilians, the head of the Britain-based monitoring group, Rami Abdel Rahman, told AFP.
At least 24 civilians were killed in shelling of the Homs neighbourhood of Baba Amr in the 19th straight day of a government forces assault on the central city, the Observatory said.American journalist Marie Colvin, who reported for London's Sunday Times, and French freelance photojournalist Remi Ochlik were killed in the latest onslaught of the district, French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand said.
France's President Nicolas Sarkozy said the deaths of the journalists showed that "this regime must go."
He was joined by several Western governments in condemning the killing of journalists.From inside the quarter, activist Omar Shaker told AFP that two were killed and three others wounded as a shell crashed into a makeshift media centre set up by anti-regime militants.French newspaper Le Figaro said one of its reporters, Edith Bouvier, was wounded in the legs, and Rupert Murdoch, owner of The Sunday Times, said the paper's photojournalist Paul Conroy was injured.
French television reporter Gilles Jacquier was killed in Homs last month when a shell exploded amid a group of journalists covering protests in the city on a visit organised by the authorities.Syrian citizen journalist Rami al-Sayyed, who provided live footage on the Internet from Baba Amr, was als killed late on Tuesday when a rocket hit a car in which he was travelling, activist Hadi Abdullah told AFP. Elsewhere, two civilians were killed as Syrian troops fired on the city of Khan Shaykhun, in the northwestern province of Idlib, according to the Observatory.
It said seven others, including a five-year-old child and a woman, were killed by security forces in the area of Jebel al-Zawiya, in the northwestern province of Idlib, where at least 33 people were reportedly killed on Tuesday.
And in the northern city of Aleppo, security forces opened fire on university students who staged a protest at the department of electric engineering, the Observatory said, adding several were wounded.
Army helicopters bombed the city of Saraqeb in the same province, the opposition Local Coordination Committees said.
A call by the International Committee for the Red Cross for a two-hour truce daily to deliver aid to afflicted areas has gained support from the United Nations, as well as from the United States and Russia.
Tuesday's call came a day after the ICRC said it was in talks with Syrian authorities and rebels to halt the violence.
The talks are still at "the initial stage," Saleh Dabbakeh, the ICRC spokesman in Damascus, told AFP. "We are exploring what can be done to implement a ceasefire."In Geneva, the Syrian National Council began talks with ICRC officials on getting vital humanitarian assistance to crisis-hit areas.
The SNC, Syria's main opposition group, demanded the international community create "safe havens" and called on Russia to force the regime to allow access for aid convoys.UN under secretary general for humanitarian affairs, Valerie Amos, backed calls for Syria to allow aid groups unimpeded access to the country.
A UN spokeman said on Wednesday that Amos would seek Syrian permission to visit the country to assess the ongoing crisis.In Paris, the SNC said it would attend a summit of the countries known as the "Friends of Syria" and ask for safe zones to protect civilians.The rebel Free Syrian Army head, Colonel Riyadh al-Asaad, has welcomed the humanitarian truce call but voiced doubts that the "criminal" regime would abide by a ceasefire.White House press secretary Jay Carney said "we support calls for ceasefires to allow for the provision of humanitarian supplies to Syrians who desperately need it."
Moscow, a staunch ally of Syrian, also supported the ICRC truce call, expressing "serious concern" about the humanitarian situation.But Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said Russia was not backing a French call for aid corridors because these would require support from foreign troops.Saudi King Abdullah told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev it was "futile" to have dialogue on Syria, saying Moscow should have "coordinated with the Arabs... before using the veto" to block a resolution on Syria in the UN Security Council.
The conversation came two days ahead of an international conference in Tunisia to be attended by the Syrian opposition and not the regime, to find ways to end the bloodshed.Medvedev also held a telephone call with his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, during which the two Syria allies rejected foreign intervention in the Syrian crisis.Russia announced it would not attend the "Friends of Syria" meeting because it was being convened "for the purpose of supporting one side against another in an internal conflict."
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who will participate, said Syria was increasingly under pressure.
The Friday meeting will "demonstrate that Assad's regime is increasingly isolated and that the brave Syrian people need our support and solidarity," she said.