|Buthaina Shaaban, Syrian spokesman, dismissed UN's latest death toll estimates during visit to Moscow [AFP]
Russia has rejected Western calls for greater pressure 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.
On Monday, a day after France described the lack of a firm UN stance against Damascus as a "scandal", Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, said recent US and European sanctions on Syria meant "additional pressure now is absolutely not needed in this direction".
Separately on Monday, activists said Syrian troops have carried out deadly raids around the city of Hama began after security forces cut all roads leading to the area along with electricity and telephone lines.
At least 2,000 troops backed by dozens of armoured vehicles reportedly fired machine guns at random and stormed several villages, towns and historical sites in al-Ghab Plain, ancient agricultural land northwest of Hama, activists said.
The activist groups numbered civilian casualties at 17, who were killed during a raid by security forces in the last 24 hours.
At least six other people were killed in other parts of Syria. Security forces are said to be looking for wanted people, and have already arrested 60 people. Activists also said that a number of houses owned by activists have been burnt.
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Russia and China, veto-wielding members of the United Nations Security Council, have resisted efforts by Washington and its European allies to increase 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 centres and mass arrests.
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.
On Sunday, the Gulf Co-operation Council called for "an immediate end to the killing machine" in Syria, and reiterated its demand for government reforms.
Ending a meeting in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah, the six foreign ministers of the Gulf Arab states issued a statement calling for an end to the crackdown on anti-government protesters and urging "the immediate implementation of serious reforms that meet the aspirations" of the Syrian people.
UN 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 UN 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 UN efforts to get human rights monitors into the country, said Valerie Amos, UN humanitarian affairs chief.
France, Britain, the US, Germany and Portugal have circulated a draft UN 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 UN in such a terrible crisis," Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister, 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 shouldadopt in New York a very clear resolution condemning the violence."
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.
Assad has announced some reforms such as ending emergency law and launching a "national dialogue". Opponents say these have made little difference.
Residents and local activists said thousands of troops and hundreds of armoured vehicles were gathered on Monday near the main highway leading to Turkey and in the al-Ghab Plain to the northwest of the city of Hama, as well as other areas.