UN Security Council envoys have issued a statement condemning human rights violations and use of force against civilians by the Syrian government, amid a tank attack on Hama, a city of 800,000 residents.
The text was adopted on Wednesday after three days of heated discussions by the 15-member body, as a council statement rather than as a resolution.
The statement "condemn[s] widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities".
The diplomatic developments came as fresh explosions erupted in Hama, the venue of some of the largest demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad's rule during the unrest.
Activists say the president has shown no signs of halting the intense military assault against the uprising, now in its fifth month.
Residents said Syrian military vehicles had occupied the main Orontes Square in Hama's centre.
The Security Council had been struggling since Monday over how to respond to the crisis, with European powers and the US seeking a tough condemnation.
But Russia, China and some other nations so far were blocking action, saying it could lead to a Libya-style military intervention by the West.
Divisions centred on the wording of any condemnation of Assad's crackdown on protests and whether it should be a formal resolution or a less weighty statement.
'Does not help'
Syria's neighbour, Lebanon, where Syrian influence is strong, disassociated itself from the statement, a rare but not unprecedented move that still allowed the statement to pass.
Lebanese envoy Caroline Ziade told the council the statement "does not help in addressing the current situation in Syria."
According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), 1,629 civilians and 374 members of the security forces have been killed since pro-democracy protests erupted on March 15.
"Something that's missing is a call for an investigation that was in the original resolution put forth by Europeans," Al Jazeera's Kristen Saloomey, reporting from the UN, said. "
"But there is a phrase in the text that calls fon all sides to refrain from violence, including violence against the state," our correspondent said, referring to modifications that were strongly emphasised by Russia.
Following the latest changes, Russia lifted its objections and its UN envoy, Vitaly Churkin, called the new version "balanced".
Meanwhile, the White House hardened its stance against Assad on Wednesday.
"We do not want to see him remain in Syria for stability's sake and, rather, we view him as the cause of instability in Syria," Jay Carney, a spokesman, said.
More deaths reported
Syrian security forces shot and killed four civilians after evening prayers on Wednesday, Rami Abdel Rahman, the SOHR head, said.
He said one death occurred in the southwestern town of Nawa, in Deraa province, one in the central city of Palmyra, and two in Damascus,
|Activists say more than 1,600 civilians have
been killed in the unrest [Reuters]
Syrian troops have tightened their siege on Hama since Sunday, sending residents fleeing for their lives.
"There are some 100 tanks and troop carriers on the highway leading to the central city of Hama and about 200 tanks around the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor," Abdel Rahman said.
Telephone and internet communication were cut in Hama and nearby areas, he said.
Abdel Raman also reported that a local official in Deir ez-Zor "received advise from well-informed sources that residents should flee while they still had time before the army storms the town by Friday".
In Hama, tanks were deployed in several districts and shelling could be heard across many neighbourhoods, other activists said.
"From the sound of the shelling, it sounds like it's open warfare," the Local Co-ordination Committees, which represents the protesters, said, describing plumes of smoke over the city.
"People are deserting the city and are faced by live gunfire from security forces and army troops if they don't respond to orders to go back inside," the committees said.
Security forces set up checkpoints in and around Hama, where a building and several homes reportedly collapsed due to the shelling.
The accounts could not be independently verified as foreign reporters are not allowed to travel in Syria to report on the unrest.
The fierce crackdown on Hama - where an estimated 20,000 people were killed in 1982 when Assad's father Hafez crushed a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood - has prompted solidarity protests across Syria and international condemnation.
Security Council statement
The statement adopted on Wednesday was the Security Council's first pronouncement on Syria since the protests started.
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The statement called "on the Syrian authorities to fully respect human rights and to comply with their obligations under applicable international law".
It said that "those responsible for the violence should be held accountable".
International pressure on the Security Council to agree on a stand had mounted since weekend violence in which an estimated 140 people were killed in a military assault on Hama and other protest towns.
Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, vented his anger after the killings, saying al-Assad had "lost all sense of humanity".
Al Jazeera's Rula Amin, reporting from Beirut, said Syrians welcomed Wednesday's statement.
"So for the people of Syria, it's one step forward," she said. "They don't want military intervention. They want more support - not just from European countries - but from neighbouring Arab countries and Turkey."
For its part, the Syrian state news agency SANA has said the parliament will meet in an extraordinary session on Sunday to discuss "issues concerning the nation and its citizens".
It also said funerals were held on Wednesday for seven members of the security services and army who were killed by "armed terrorist gangs" in a suburb of Damascus as well as in Homs, Hama and Deraa.
State television on Monday aired an amateur video showing corpses being thrown from a bridge into a river, and said the bodies were of security forces killed by anti-government protesters.
Rights activists, however, have challenged that account, saying the victims were pro-democracy protesters killed by the army.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies