Syrian government forces have launched military assaults in different parts of the country, activists said, as Russia said Damascus was making "a lot of mistakes" in handling the unrest sweeping the country.
Opposition activists on Wednesday said army troops shelled three neighbourhoods in central city of Homs, a day after at least 14 people were killed in heavy bombardment.
The districts under attack, al-Qosour, al-Khalidiya and al-Bayada, are located next to each other in northern Homs.
Hadi al-Abdallah of the Syrian Revolution General Commission activist network said that the neighbourhoods are crowded with people who fled Bab Amr, the neighbourhood that government troops took over from opposition fighters after a fierce offensive last month.
Also on Wednesday, two large suburbs of Damascus came under heavy tank bombardment following renewed attacks by opposition fighters on forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
Artillery and anti-aircraft gun barrages hit the suburbs of Harasta and Irbin, retaken from rebels by Assad's forces two months ago, and army helicopters were heard flying over the area, on the eastern edge of the capital, the activists said.
Elsewhere, opposition fighters fled the eastern Syrian city of Deir al-Zor in the face of a fierce army assault.
"Tanks entered residential neighbourhoods, especially in southeastern areas of Deir al-Zor. The Free Syrian Army pulled out to avoid a civilian massacre," a statement by the Deir al-Zor Revolution Committees Union said on Tuesday.
Activist Osama Mansour said the fighters lacked guns and ammunition.
"They knew they could not hold control of the neighbourhoods, so they decided to stop fighting, knowing that the regime would bring in heavy weapons and kill many civilians,'' Mansour said.
The lightly-armed Free Syrian Army retreated across the country in recent weeks, with the army using heavy armour to chase them from towns and cities.
But as Assad made advances on the ground, he appeared to suffer a setback on the diplomatic front, with key-ally Moscow adopting a new, sharper tone after months of publicly standing by his government.
"We believe the Syrian leadership reacted wrongly to the first appearance of peaceful protests and ... is making very many mistakes," Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, told local radio station Kommersant-FM.
"This, unfortunately, has in many ways led the conflict to reach such a severe stage."
Lavrov also spoke of a "future transition" period for Syria but continued to reject calls from most Western and Arab states for Assad to resign, saying this was "unrealistic".
It was not immediately clear if the change in language would translate into a tangible difference in the way the divided international community might deal with the crisis.
In a bid to win Russian and Chinese support, France has watered down a proposed UN Security Council statement calling on the Syrian government and the opposition to immediately implement proposals by international envoy Kofi Annan to end the year-long bloodshed.
The original draft presidential statement would have called on the council to review implementation of Annan's six-point proposal in seven days and consider "further measures'' - which could include sanctions or military action - if there was not sufficient progress.
However, a revised draft circulated late on Tuesday and obtained by the Associated Press news agency drops this threat and instead asks Annan to update the council regularly on the progress of his mission.
Opposition fighters 'abuses'
The uprising against Assad started in March 2011. His security forces quickly cracked down on dissent, attacking protesters with tanks, snipers and pro-regime thugs.
The UN says more than 8,000 people have been killed, many of them unarmed protesters.
The conflict has grown more militarised as many in the opposition have taken up arms to protect their towns and attack regime forces.
On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch (HRW), an international human rights group, accused opposition rebels of kidnapping, torturing and executing members of the security forces, pro-government armed gangs and other government supporters.
HRW called on Syrian political opposition leaders to condemn the abuses.
"The Syrian government's brutal tactics cannot justify abuses by armed opposition groups,'' Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at HRW, said
"Opposition leaders should make it clear to their followers that they must not torture, kidnap, or execute under any circumstances.''
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|William A. Cook|