MOSCOW Russia rejected on Monday Western calls for wider sanctions on Syria over its violent crackdown on protests against President Bashar al-Assad, in which the United Nations said 2,600 people have been killed.
A day after France described the lack of a firm U.N. stance against Damascus as a scandal, President Dmitry Medvedev said recent U.S. and European sanctions on Syria meant "additional pressure now is absolutely not needed in this direction."
Russia and China, veto-wielding members of the United Nations Security Council, have resisted efforts by Washington and its European allies to step up the international response to Syria's repression of nearly six months of protests.
Assad has reacted to the uprising, inspired by revolts which have toppled three North African leaders this year, with military assaults on protest centers and mass arrests.
On Monday, residents and local activists said Syrian forces killed at least 15 villagers in raids in the countryside around Hama in what they said was one of the biggest military assaults since the uprising broke out.
At least 2,000 troops backed by dozens of armored vehicles fired machineguns at random and stormed several villages and towns in the al-Ghab Plain, agricultural land northwest of Hama, they said.
Residents and activists had reported earlier that several thousand soldiers and hundreds of armored vehicles had massed in the last 24 hours in areas north of Hama which had seen large protests calling for Assad's removal.
Syrian opposition group Sawasiah said on Sunday 113 civilians had been killed in the last week, during which activists and diplomats say Syrian forces stepped up raids to detain protest coordinators.
Damascus blames armed groups for the violence. Assad's media adviser Bouthaina Shaaban, speaking on a trip to Moscow on Monday, gave a lower death toll than the United Nations and said half of the fatalities were among security forces.
"According to our information, 700 people were killed on the side of the army and police and 700 on the side of the insurgents," Shaaban told reporters through a translator.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said the United Nations figure was based on "reliable sources on the ground."
"The number of those killed since the onset of the unrest in mid-March ... has now reached at least 2,600," Pillay told the U.N. Human Rights Council.
She did not identify the sources. Syria has barred Pillay's investigation team and most foreign journalists from entering the country. Syria had also repeatedly blocked U.N. efforts to get human rights monitors into the country, U.N. humanitarian affairs chief Valerie Amos said.
The United Nations on Monday named a three-member panel of international experts to investigate human rights violations including possible crimes against humanity since the protests began.
Sergio Pinheiro of Brazil will lead the commission of inquiry, which the U.N. Human Rights Council agreed to set up last month to probe arbitrary executions, excessive use of force and killings and report back by the end of November.
FRANCE WANTS "CLEAR UN RESOLUTION"
France, Britain, the United States, Germany and Portugal have circulated a draft U.N. Security Council resolution that called for sanctions against Assad, influential relatives and close associates, but it met resistance from Russia and China.
"I think it's a scandal not to have a clear position of the U.N. in such a terrible crisis," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Sunday.
"We think that the regime has lost its legitimacy. We think that it's too late to implement a level of reform. We should adopt in New York a very clear resolution condemning the violence."
Medvedev said Russia believed any resolution must be "tough but balanced, and addressed to both sides in Syria," and that it must not automatically lead to further sanctions because "there is already a large number of sanctions against Syria."
Syrian demonstrators have demanded international protection to stop civilian killings, but there has been no hint in the West of any appetite for military action along the lines of the NATO bombing that helped topple Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.
Intervention would be a daunting prospect in a country in the heart of the volatile Middle East. Syria has three times Libya's population, supports Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups and has a strong alliance with Iran. It remains formally at war with Israel, retains influence in Lebanon and has a sizeable Kurdish minority in its east.
After talks in Damascus with Assad, Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby said they had agreed on a series of measures that he would present to league member states to help end the violence.
Assad has announced some reforms such as ending emergency law and launching a "national dialogue." Opponents say these have made little difference.
Among hundreds of Syrians arrested in recent days was leading psychoanalyst Rafah Nashed, 66, who has been treating people traumatized by the mounting repression, her friends said.
Syrian authorities do not comment on arrests but have said in the past that any arrests are made in accordance with the constitution.
(Additional reporting Robert Evans and Stephanie Nebehayin Geneva and Gleb Bryanski in Moscow and N. Ece Toksabay in Turkey; Writing by Dominic Evans and Khaled Yacoub Oweis; Editing by Myra MacDonald)