Beirut: Syrian forces shot dead three people in Homs on Monday as crowds welcomed a UN humanitarian team, activists said, and the United Nations said the death toll from President Bashar al-Assad`s crackdown on protests had reached 2,200.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces and loyalist gunmen known as "shabiha" opened fire on hundreds of people who had taken to the streets of Homs to greet the UN team, which has been granted access to assess humanitarian needs after five months of protest and repression.
Video footage broadcast on Al Jazeera television showed a crowd of people thronging around a car, chanting "The people want the overthrow of the regime" and holding signs saying "SOS" and "We will never give up until we get our freedom."
The footage appeared to have been filmed before shots were fired and it was not immediately clear whether the UN team witnessed the incident.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay accused Syrian soldiers and security forces of using excessive force, including heavy artillery, to crush peaceful protests.
"As of today, over 2,200 people have been killed since mass protests began in mid-March, with more than 350 people reportedly killed across Syria since the beginning of Ramadan," Pillay told the UN Human Rights Council.
Assad stepped up his military campaign to crush dissent during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which started on Aug 1, sending the army into large cities including Hama, Deir al-Zor and Latakia.
The escalating bloodshed led Arab states to break months of silence and call for an end to the violence, while the United States and Europe have expanded their sanctions against Syria and called on Assad to step down.
Syria also faced pressure on Monday at the UN Human Rights Council, where a draft resolution presented by 25 members including Arab nations called for an international commission of inquiry into alleged crimes against humanity.
Assad, speaking to Syrian television on Sunday, said Syria would not bow to external pressure, which he said could only affect "a president made in the United States and a subservient people who get their orders from outside."
"As for the threat of a military action ... any action against Syria will have greater consequences (on those who carry it out), greater than they can tolerate," he said.
Syria, which borders Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan, has regional influence because of its alliance with Iran and its role in Lebanon, despite ending a 29-year military presence there in 2005. It also has influence in Iraq and supports militant groups Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah.
No country has proposed the kind of action against Syria which NATO forces have carried out in support of Libyan rebels seeking to topple Muammar Gaddafi. But Gaddafi`s apparent collapse in Libya will give fresh heart to Assad`s opponents.
"As for the security situation (it) has become more militant in the recent weeks," Assad said. "We are capable of dealing with it ... I am not worried."
Assad also said he expected a parliamentary election to be held in February after a series of reforms that would let political groups other than his Baath party take part.
The opposition has dismissed Assad`s promised political reforms and many opposition figures have rejected his call for a national dialogue, saying there can be no discussion while security forces continue to kill protesters.
The Syrian Observatory said "shabbiha" gunmen who were celebrating after Assad`s television appearance opened fire in Masyaf, west of Hama, killing two people and wounding four. They also attacked shops belonging to Assad opponents, it said.
Seeking to unify their fragmented movement, opposition figures have gathered in Turkey to nominate a broad-based council to support the uprising.
"The discussions are focusing on moving away from quotas toward a more merit-based council," Professor Wael Merza, one of the delegates, told Reuters. "We expect to reach consensus on the list of names by the end of this week."
Similar initiatives in the past have failed to produce a robust umbrella group to unite the opposition, fragmented by 41 years of autocratic rule by Assad and his father Hafez al-Assad.
Assad`s government has blamed armed groups for the violence and has said more than 500 soldiers and police have been killed since the unrest erupted in March.
State news agency SANA said 17 members of Syria`s security forces were buried on Saturday and Sunday, some of them killed by gunmen in Homs and the southern province of Deraa.
Syria has expelled most independent media since the unrest began, making it difficult to verify events on the ground.
The UN team which visited Homs arrived in Syria on Saturday to assess humanitarian needs and is expected to stay in the country until Thursday.
Assad, from the minority Alawite sect in the mostly Sunni Muslim nation, told UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last week that all military and police operations had ceased, but activists say dozens of protesters have been killed since then.