BEIRUT — A Syrian activist group reported Monday that 138 people have been killed across the country, about half of them in the embattled opposition stronghold of Homs. A team from the Syrian arm of the Red Cross delivered aid to one of the city's most dangerous neighborhoods after days of trying to reach the area.
The activist group did not say whether all 138 died on Monday or were killed over the past few days. Many of the casualties were believed to be from the rebel-controlled Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, which the Syrian Arab Red Crescent entered late Monday. Also in the neighborhood are two wounded journalists along with the bodies of two of their colleagues who were killed last week. European and American diplomats and aid workers have been trying desperately to find a way to evacuate them.
Homs has been under siege for nearly four weeks, making it impossible for rescue workers to get to the wounded and for families to bring their injured and dead to the hospital or aid stations.
The high death toll reported by activist group the Local Coordination Committees is sure to add to the already intensifying pressure on authoritarian President Bashar Assad to give up power.
Representatives of more than 60 countries met in Tunis last week trying to forge a unified strategy to push Assad from power. They began planning a civilian peacekeeping mission to deploy after the regime falls. And the European Union imposed new sanctions on Syria Monday.
But Russia has been stubbornly vocal in its opposition to any outside interference in Syria's affairs.
Putin warned Monday against military intervention in scathing criticism of the West as he laid out his foreign policy priorities less than a week before Russia's presidential election.
Putin said the West had backed the Arab Spring to advance its interests in the region, and that instead of promoting democracy the revolts had given rise to religious extremism.
In Damascus, a Syrian official accused the West of trying to destabilize the country for its own gain and warned that the opposition that militarizing is a big mistake that will backfire.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told The Associated Press in a rare interview in the Syrian capital that dialogue among all parties is the only way to end the conflict. Activists groups said Monday that the death toll for 11 months of unrest has now surpassed 8,000 people.
"The West took advantage of the awakening of the Syrian street. Instead of helping Syria to overcome this painful crisis, they are using this to hit the stability of Syria for other geopolitical reasons," he said.
The diplomatic pressure on Syria comes as the humanitarian and security situation on the ground has deteriorated rapidly. The Local Coordination Committees, said 64 of the people who were reported dead on Monday died while trying to flee shelling in the Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr when they were killed at a security checkpoint in the city's Abil area.
The dead included three women, three children and four soldiers, the group said. It did not specify whether the soldiers had defected to the opposition.
It said 47 of the bodies were found between the villages of al-Ghajar and al-Tanouna, and that 17 others were found north of the al-Shindakhiyeh dam. All of those areas are in central Syria, near Homs, which has taken a central role in the Syrian uprising.
A second activist group, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said 68 bodies had been brought to the hospital in Homs and that they were found between the villages of Ram al-Anz and al-Ajriyeh.
The group said it had unconfirmed reports that the dead were families that been killed by security forces while fleeing the city and called for an investigation.
The two accounts could not be immediately be reconciled, and the death tolls could not be independently verified.
Some of the worst fighting in Syria's nearly one-year-long conflict has come in Homs, where residents have been bombarded by Syrian government forces for nearly four weeks.
Two western journalists were killed in government shelling in Homs last week, and two other journalists injured.
Poland said Monday its diplomats are working with U.S., British and French authorities to evacuate the two reporters — Edith Bouvier of France and Paul Conroy of Britain — as well as the bodies of American Marie Colvin and Frenchman Remi Ochlik, who were killed in the same attack.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy accused Syrian authorities of assassinating Colvin and Ochlik by targeting a makeshift media center where they were killed.
"When the Syrian army fires shells several times on a building that they perfectly well knew was a press center ... it's an assassination," he said during an interview with RTL.
Syrian officials announced the results of a referendum on a new constitution held Sunday. Authorities lauded the new charter as a step toward political reform, but the U.S. and its allies have dismissed the vote as a "farce" meant to justify the regime's bloody crackdown on dissent.
Syrian state TV said 89 percent of eligible voters approved the new document, while nine percent rejected it. It put turnout at 57 percent of Syria's 14.9 million eligible voters.
Syria's main opposition groups boycotted the vote, and violence elsewhere prevented polling.