AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian forces shot dead at least six villagers and two rebel soldiers on Monday, in a sweep of countryside north of the city of Homs, one of the most defiant regions in pro-democracy protests, activists and residents said.
Syria's ruling elite, from the country's Alawite minority sect, have intensified military assaults in the last few weeks to stop a six-month uprising that has triggered increasing defections among the mostly Sunni rank and file military.
The United Nations human rights division said pro-Assad forces had killed 2,700 protesters since an uprising demanding his removal started in March, including at least 100 children.
Human rights campaigners and Western diplomats in Syria also report increased assassinations of protest leaders, more deaths from torture and mass arrests that have seen tens of thousands of Syrians detained, focusing recently on professionals and academics critical of President Bashar al-Assad.
"Crimes against humanity are being committed in Syria and the leaders of the regime will have to answer for them," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said in remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Assad, who inherited power from his father 11 years ago, has repeatedly said he was resisting a foreign conspiracy to divide Syria and that use of force had been limited, with the majority of Syrians backing him.
The assault on Houla, a collection of villages north of Homs, 165 km (100 miles) north of Damascus, followed a large protest on Sunday demanding Assad's removal. About 12 government soldiers manning rural checkpoints had defected, activists said.
"Several of the defectors put up a fight but they were overwhelmed. The rest were civilians who were killed by the random gunfire from the tanks as they went through al-Houla," said a resident who gave his name as Abu Yazan.
He said 14 people, including school-age students, were arrested in Taldo, Kfar Laha, Takltheb Tibeh and Iqreb villages.
Local activists said troops launched a similar operation on Monday in the northwestern region of Jabal Shahshabo near Turkey and house-to-house raids in the town of Dumair north of the capital Damascus.
In Homs, activists said security forces fired live ammunition overnight to disperse protests across the city in honor of 19-year old Zeinab al-Hasni who was arrested in July to exert pressure on her activist brother. Her mutilated body was returned to her family on Saturday.
The authorities rarely comment on specific arrests but they have denied in the past reports of suspected torture and said any detentions were made according with the constitution.
Military assaults have been carried out by loyalist forces who tend to be drawn from Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Islam.
The Sunni rank and file are usually assigned to man checkpoints under the eye of the Alawite dominated Military Intelligence, which has been entrusted with preventing dissent among the military, residents and former officers say.
"The regime is trying to stop the protests everywhere it can, as if it were plugging a leaking pipe. As soon as it closes one hole, water leaks from a dozen others," said one activist in Damascus, where security was particularly tight in central neighborhoods.
An adviser to Assad, on a visit to Moscow this month, said reports of mass civilian killings had been exaggerated by the media and that the only casualties were 700 soldiers and policemen killed by terrorist groups and a similar number of what she described as mutineers.
The official news agency said an "armed terrorist group" killed four security police overnight in an ambush near Hama, which was among the hardest hit cities in an escalation of military attacks that coincided with the beginning of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan at the start of August.
In apparent reaction to street calls for international protection against the killing of civilians, Assad told a Russian parliamentary delegation this week that "outside interference threatens to fragment the countries of the region and raise the danger of extremism within them," according to the official news agency.
Kyung-wha Kang, deputy U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, told the forum on Monday that Syrian security forces, "backed by tanks, helicopters and snipers" continue to crush protests in cities including Homs, Latakia, Deraa and Damascus.
A large-scale assault in Homs this month had left at least 23 civilians dead and scores injured, she said, adding that Syrian forces "are reported to have forcibly removed wounded people from hospitals, including from operating rooms, in Homs and prevented medical personnel from reaching the injured."
A National Council formed by the opposition and announced in Istanbul last week, as well as civic figures who met in Syria at the weekend, have appealed to protesters to maintain the peaceful nature of the uprising and warned against falling into what they see as sectarian strife being stoked by Assad.
"Continuation of the peaceful revolt is crucial to achieve a peaceful democratic transition and bring down the tyrannical and corrupt security regime," said a statement issued after a two-day meeting of the National Coordination Commission, a new grouping of mainly secular writers, artists, and intellectuals.
But one activist in Damascus, who declined to be named said: "These calls are fine and dandy but what do you do when protesters are being met with live ammunition and taking to the street to demonstrate is equivalent to attempted suicide?"
"The uprising is remaining peaceful as much because this is a police state and the people do not have weapons as much as it is to high mindedness."
(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva)