BEIRUT Syrian insurgents detonated bombs at a building occupied by pro-government militias in Damascus on Tuesday and France called for U.N. protection of rebel-held areas to help end Syria's bloodshed and rights abuses.
Activists say that more than 27,000 people have been killed in the 18-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad but jostling for regional advantage by world powers has thwarted effective U.N. Security Council action to defuse the conflict.
The United States, European allies, Turkey and Gulf Arab states have sided with the Syrian opposition while Iran, Russia and China have backed Assad, whose family and minority Alawite sect have dominated the major Arab state for 42 years.
With no foreseeable prospect of foreign intervention and peace diplomacy stuck, outgunned rebels have relied increasingly on attacks with home-made bombs, striving to level the playing field against a state using fighter jets, artillery and tanks.
"At exactly 9:35 a.m., seven improvised devices were set off in two explosions to target a school used for weekly planning meetings between shabbiha militia and security officers," said Abu Moaz, a leader of Ansar al-Islam, one of the rebel groups in the 18-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.
Rebels said they hoped their attack would kill top-level security officials - as they did with a major Damascus bombing in July - but gave no casualty figure. State media said at least seven people were wounded, with minor damage to buildings.
At the annual U.N. General Assembly in New York, French President Francois Hollande sought to shake up international inertia over Syria's crisis by demanding credible U.N. protection of areas now in insurgent hands.
"The Syrian regime ... has no future among us," Hollande said in a speech. "Without any delay, I call upon the United Nations to provide immediately to the Syrian people all the support it asks of us and to protect liberated zones."
Protection for "liberated" areas would require no-fly zones enforced by foreign aircraft, which could stop deadly air raids by Assad's forces on populated areas. But there is little chance of securing a Security Council mandate for such action given the continuing opposition of veto-wielding members Russia and China.
"How long can we accept the paralysis at the U.N.?" Hollande said from the U.N. podium. France in August started funneling aid to rebel-held parts of Syria so that they could administer themselves and help staunch an outflow of refugees.
But Western powers have shied from supplying military aid to the rebels to an extent that could turn the tide of the conflict, in part out of fear of arming Islamist militants who have joined the anti-Assad revolt.
In another speech to the General Assembly, Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani said Arab nations should intervene in Syria given the Security Council's failure to stop the civil war.
Qatar, which backs the rebels, earlier called on big powers to prepare a "Plan B" within weeks and set up a no-fly zone to provide a safe haven inside Syria in case international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi fails to make headway.
The Qatari emir said he believed Arab and European countries would be ready to take part, despite their public wariness of committing the forces needed for such a mission.
Addressing the General Assembly, U.S. President Barack Obama accused Iran of helping keep a dictatorship in power in Syria.
"Just as it restricts the rights of its own people, the Iranian government props up a dictator in Damascus and supports terrorist groups abroad," Obama said in a reference to Assad.
"We again declare that the regime of Bashar al-Assad must come to an end so that the suffering of the Syrian people can stop, and a new dawn can begin."
"BAD AND GETTING WORSE"
Syria's conflict, once a peaceful protest movement, has evolved into a civil war that the U.N. special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said was "extremely bad and getting worse." He said that the stalemate in the country could soon "find an opening", without elaborating.
Even the capital Damascus has become a battleground between Assad's forces and opposition fighters.
Last week, the army bombarded rebel strongholds there to flush them out of the capital, once seen as Assad's untouchable seat of power but now a scene of daily fighting.
In Tuesday's Damascus bombing, the state news channel Syria TV quoted a government official as saying two improvised explosives planted by "terrorists" blew up near the "Sons of Martyrs" school.
Residents said smoke was billowing from the area in southeastern Damascus and ambulances were rushing to the scene. Some said they believed two people had died in the attack but could not name the victims.
Damascus residents also reported heavy clashes for two hours on Baghdad Street in a central district of the capital, just to the north of the ancient Old City.
The British-based charity Save the Children released a harrowing report about abuse of Syrian refugee children.
Khalid, 15, said he was hung by his arms from the ceiling of his own school building and beaten senseless. Wael said he saw a 6-year-old starved and beaten to death, "tortured more than anyone else in the room.
"He was beaten regularly. I watched him die," Wael was quoted as saying. "He only survived for three days and then he simply died."
U.N. investigators say Syrian government forces have committed human rights violations "on an alarming scale", but have also listed multiple killings and kidnappings by armed rebels trying to oust Assad after 12 years in power.
The children that Save the Children spoke to in refugee camps in neighboring countries said they had witnessed massacres and seen family members killed during the conflict.
Humanitarian conditions are worsening as the violence drags on. The president of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, which has been the only relief group on the ground the entire 18 months of conflict, said it was in dire need of supplies.
"We need to concentrate mostly on health and shelter because there are 1.5 million displaced people," Abdul Rahman Attar told Reuters during a visit to Oslo. "We need more of everything."
"We need help with shelter, medical equipment in medicine," he said. "There's still killing and that's most critical, we must stop the killings first." (Additional reporting by Balazs Koranyi in Oslo; Editing by Mark Heinrich)