West, UN confirm death toll rising in Syria, appeal to Russia to back international action against Damascus

Iraq urges Syria to accept Arab initiative on monitors to avoid internationalization of crisis

Syrian troops storm Hama to end strike

Iran passes free trade exchange with Syria

Russia refused to back Western sanctions against Syria, insisting that the country's crisis should be solved through the Arab League and without any ultimatums.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that armed opposition groups were trying "to provoke a humanitarian catastrophe and create an excuse to demand foreign intervention in this conflict."

He said that Russia advised Syria to let Arab League monitors into the country and that observers from Brazil, Russia, India and China may join them.

Top UN human rights official Navi Pillay told the Security Council that Syria should be referred to the International Criminal Court over its crackdown on protesters.

She said that at least 300 children had been killed since March.

Russia said on Tuesday that it was not ready to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court and called Western criticism of its conduct in the U.N. Security Council "immoral."

The remarks, the latest display of Russian opposition to Western calls for greater pressure on Syria's government, came after the U.N. human rights chief issued a fresh call for the council to refer the situation to the court.

"We proceed from the position that only the U.N. Security Council can sanction the transfer of the Syrian dossier to the International Criminal Court," the state-run news agency Itar-Tass quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov as saying. "We do not see grounds for this at the present time."

Pillay reported to the Security Council that the death toll in more than nine months of unrest in Syria exceeded 5,000 people, including civilians, army defectors and those executed for refusing to shoot civilians.

The Syrian government has said more than 1,100 members of the army, police and security forces have been killed.

Gatilov said Russia shared other council nations' concerns about the continuing violence but "we do not agree with evaluations according to which responsibility for the violence ... lies exclusively upon the Syrian authorities."

Russia used a similar argument in October, when it joined China in using their veto power as permanent Security Council members to block passage of a Western-drafted resolution that would have condemned Syria's government for its crackdown.

Security Council nations including the United States and France have expressed frustration with opposition to sanctions and other pressure on Syria from Russia and China.

French U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud said on Monday that it was "scandalous that the council, because of opposition from some members and the indifference of others ... has not been able to act to exert pressure on the Syrian authorities."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hit back, saying that Western nations should also put pressure on militants he said shared the blame for the violence.

"If those who refuse to exert pressure on the armed extremist part of the opposition are at the same time accusing us of blocking the work of the Security Council, I would call that position, in the final analysis, immoral," he said.

Lavrov, speaking after a meeting with his Algerian counterpart, said Russia had been pressing Syria to allow Arab observers into the country under an Arab League peace plan.

"Our advice, which has been given to Damascus and which we affirm on a practically daily basis, is to sign this protocol and accept observers as soon as possible," Lavrov said.

Syria has accepted an Arab League plan to send monitors to observe an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad and will sign a protocol to that effect, Iraq's foreign minister said on Thursday.

Syria's acceptance of a proposal it has previously sought to amend appeared to be a last-ditch attempt to fend off sanctions being discussed by Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo.

"Syria has agreed fully to the protocol," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told reporters in Cairo.

There was no immediate confirmation from Syria and Arab League officials could not be immediately reached for comment.

Syria is not represented at the Arab League meeting because its membership was suspended for failing to implement a League plan to end a crackdown on protests against Assad.

Zebari said Arab ministers had agreed that all violence must end in Syria, where the United Nations says more than 3,500 people have been killed in eight months of unrest.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe gave more details of his proposal for a "secured zone to protect civilians" in Syria and said he would propose it to the Arab ministers in Cairo.

He said international monitors should be sent to protect civilians, with or without Assad's permission. He insisted the proposal fell short of a military intervention, but acknowledged that humanitarian convoys would need protection.

"There are two possible ways: that the international community, Arab League and the United Nations can get the regime to allow these humanitarian corridors," he told French radio. "But if that isn't the case we'd have to look at other solutions ... with international observers."

The League, which for decades has spurned acting against a member state, has threatened Syria with sanctions for ignoring the deal it had signed up to, but then sought to amend.

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby met ministers from Qatar, Egypt, Algeria, Sudan and Oman, who form a committee following the Syria issue, before a full ministerial session.

An Arab diplomat at that meeting said the committee had not yet reached conclusive recommendations for the full session.

France's idea for international intervention moves away from a previously shared determination among world powers to avoid any direct entanglement in a core Middle Eastern country.

Syria has turned tanks and troops on civilian protesters, as well as on armed insurgents challenging Assad's 11-year rule.

A senior Arab diplomat at the League said earlier that the pan-Arab body was considering what kind of sanctions to impose.

"The position of the Arab states is almost unified. We all agree ... that the situation does not lead to civil war and that no foreign intervention takes place," he said.

The November 12 agreement to suspend Syria was backed by 18 of the League's 22 members. Lebanon, where Syria for many years had a military presence, and Yemen, battling its own uprising, opposed it. Iraq, whose Shiite-led government is wary of offending Syria's main ally Iran, abstained.

Arab ministers met in a Cairo suburb instead of the League's headquarters in Tahrir Square, occupied by protesters after days of clashes with police in nearby streets.

Khaled al-Habasi, an adviser to Elaraby, said the League was also "working on uniting the Syrian opposition on a vision regarding the future of Syria during the transitional period".

Earlier this month, the League asked Syrian opposition groups to submit their ideas for a transition of power ahead of a planned bigger conference on Syria's future.

An Arab government representative at the League said ideas for sanctions included travel bans on Syrian officials, freezing bank transfers or funds in Arab states related to Assad's government and stopping Arab projects in Syria.

After an uprising erupted in Libya, the League suspended Tripoli and also called for a no-fly zone that paved the way for a U.N. Security Council resolution and NATO air strikes that helped rebels defeat and eventually kill Muammar Gaddafi.

Arabs have shown no appetite so far for following a similar route with Syria, which adjoins Israel and lies on the fault lines of several interlocking conflicts in the Middle East.

Syrian troops backed by tanks killed at least 10 people when they stormed the city of Hama on Wednesday after a three-day general strike in support of a pro-democracy uprising had shut most businesses, activists said.

In the first armored incursion into Hama since a tank offensive in August ended large protests in the city centre, troops entered districts north and east of the Orontes River, firing machineguns and ransacking and burning closed shops, they said.

Heavy civilian casualties were reported in the Hamidiya neighborhood. Insurgents tried to stop the advancing forces at Hadid Bridge and two armored vehicles were reported destroyed, activists in contact with residents said.

"Hamidiya has been a thorn in the side of the regime. It is an old area near farmland with lots of alleyways, which had helped protests continue there," Omar, an activist from Hama who lives in Damascus, said by phone.

Hama, 240 km (150 miles) north of Damascus, has particular resonance for Syrians. The city, in a valley on the Damascus-Aleppo highway, was the site of the biggest massacre in Syria's modern history.

Troops overran Hama in 1982 to put down the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which made its last stand in the city.

Up to 30,000 people were killed, of whom many died in the army bombardment or were executed in the streets by death squads loyal to President Bashar al-Assad's' father, the late Hafez al-Assad.

Tanks attacked Hama at the beginning of August, provoking Arab and Western outrage, after weeks of protests that drew hundreds of thousands of people to the main Orontes Square, demanding the removal of Bashar and an end to 41 years of Assad family rule.

Tanks withdrew after 10 days. The authorities said the operation was necessary to cleanse the city of "terrorists" according to the wishes of Hama inhabitants. Activists said up to 300 people, mostly civilians, may have been killed.

Iran's parliament on Tuesday passed a bill for a free trade agreement with Syria in a show of support for President Bashar al-Assad's regime beset by protests and international pressure.

The bill provides for free trade between Iran and Syria within the next five years, according to Iranian state television.

Both countries are subject to international sanctions on their economies. The bill was introduced into parliament as an emergency procedure by Iran's government.

Allaedin Boroujerdi said the proposed pact was "a firm response" to the United States and its allies "investing billions of dollars to change the political structure of the Syrian government."

Syria is Iran's main ally in the Middle East.

The co-chiefs of a bilateral economic cooperation commission -- Iran's urban development minister, Ali Nikzad, and Syria's economy minister, Mohammed Nidal al-Shaar -- met in Damascus on Tuesday, Syria's official SANA news agency reported.

"Iran stands next to Syria and remains committed to developing bilateral relations," the Iranian minister said upon arrival in Damascus, according to SANA.

Iranian officials, however, have recently criticized repression by Syrian security forces against pro-democracy protesters that has killed more than 5,000 people according to a UN estimate.