The UN observer mission to Syria has suspended its activities, saying escalating violence is impeding the monitors' ability to carry out its mandate.
"UN observers will not be conducting patrols and will stay in their locations until further notice," the mission's chief General Major Robert Mood said in a statement on Saturday.
About 300 observers were deployed in Syria, tasked with monitoring a ceasefire and supporting the full implementation of a six-point peace plan drafted by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, which was supposed to lead to talks between the two sides.
However, hundreds of people have been killed since the first observers were deployed in April and the mission has been harshly criticised by the opposition.
Syria's foreign ministry said Mood had informed the government of the decision to temporarily reduce the work of the monitors, Syria's official SANA news agency reported on Saturday.
"The ministry understands the decisions taken by General Robert Mood, particularly those related to preserving the safety of observers," SANA's report said.
Mood said the suspension would be reviewed on a daily basis and operations would resume when the situation was fit.
"The lack of willingness by the parties to seek a peaceful transition, and the push towards advancing military positions is increasing the losses on both sides: innocent civilians, men women and children are being killed every day," his statement said. "It is also posing significant risks to our observers."
He said intensifying violence in the last 10 days was "limiting our ability to observe, verify, report as well as assist in local dialogue and stability projects".
Shots were fired at the car carrying the UN observers after they were turned away from Haffeh by angry supporters of President Bashar al-Assad, who threw stones and metal rods at their convoy, a spokeswoman for the monitors said at the time.
Saturday's suspension signals the unraveling of Annan's plan as the conflict that began in March 2011 with peaceful protests challenging the regime spirals closer toward civil war. Activists say some 14,000 people have been killed in the conflict.
The White House said it was consulting international partners on the "next steps".
"We call again on the Syrian regime to uphold its commitments under the Annan plan, including the full implementation of a ceasefire," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement on Saturday.
"At this critical juncture, we are consulting with our international partners regarding next steps toward a Syrian-led political transition as called for in Security Council resolutions," he said, but provided no specifics.
Western powers have pinned their hopes on the plan, in part because there are no other options on the table. The international community has little appetite for the military intervention that helped oust Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, and several rounds of sanctions have failed to stop the bloodshed.
The suspension came as Syrian opposition bloc the Syrian National Council (SNC)warned on Saturday of a looming massacre in the central city of Homs, which it said is besieged by 30,000 troops and pro-regime militiamen.
"Regime forces are escalating their shelling of the city of Homs in an unprecedented way," said the exiled opposition bloc, adding troops were "getting ready to carry out a savage attack that might massacre the city's remaining residents."
It asked the UN Security Council to "protect Homs and other areas of Syria that are targeted" by regime forces.
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|William A. Cook|