NICOSIA - At least 66 people, including 26 civilians, were killed in violence across Syria on Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The London-based rights group said 26 soldiers, five other members of the security forces, nine army deserters were also among those killed as the regime cracked down on protesters and rebels. Security forces killed eight people, including a nine-year-old child, in the restive Homs region of central Syria, and shot dead another five in the northwestern region of Idlib, the Observatory said. Also among those killed were six civilians caught up in military operations and clashes in the Damascus area, the activists said in statements received in Nicosia, and one person was shot dead in the Juber district of the capital itself.

The watchdog said the regime soldiers were killed in three separate attacks in the Idlib and Damascus regions.

Earlier, it reported fierce clashes between regime troops and deserters in the Ghuta area near the capital. Three civilians were killed, it said, adding that govt forces were backed by 32 tanks and 50 armoured cars. Firefights between regime forces and deserters in Ghuta, 10 kilometres from Damascus, on Saturday killed 17 people - 11 soldiers and six civilians, the Observatory said.

A spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army, which boasts 40,000 men and whose leadership is in Turkey, said that the fighting came a day after “a large wave of defections,” with 50 officers and soldiers turning their back on Assad. In a “steady progression of fighting towards the capital,” spokesman Maher Nueimi said deserters were clashing with army regulars only eight kilometres from Damascus. The regime, in turn, has launched “an unprecedented offensive in the past 24 hours, using heavy artillery” against villages in Damascus and Hama province of central Syria, Nueimi said.

Other rebel spokesmen reported heavy fighting in Rankus, 45 kilometres (28 miles) from Damascus, and of heightened tension in Hama, further to the north. Rankus was “besieged for the past five days and is being randomly shelled since dawn by tanks and artillery rounds,” rebel Abu Ali al-Rankusi told AFP by telephone. In Hama, pro-regime snipers were deployed on the rooftops, according to activists, with security forces leaving “bodies of dead people with their hands tied behind their backs” on the streets across several neighbourhoods.

Earlier on Sunday activists and state media reported the deaths of 16 soldiers in two separate attacks as well as of five civilians and a deserter. It was this latest surge in violence that pushed the Arab League to suspend its mission to Syria in a surprise move on Saturday. Arab foreign ministers are to meet in Cairo on February 5 to review the suspension, an Arab League official said. League chief Nabil al-Arabi, departing Cairo for the United Nations, said the decision was taken after Damascus “chose the option of escalation,” but Moscow expressed surprise at the move.

“We would like to know why they are treating such a useful instrument in this way,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a visit to Brunei, cited by Russia’s ITAR-TASS news agency.

The 165 observers deployed a month ago after Damascus agreed to the Arab League plan foreseeing a halt to the violence, prisoners freed, tanks withdrawn from built-up areas and free movement of observers and foreign media.

Arabi said on Sunday he hopes Moscow and Beijing will allow the UN Security Council to issue a resolution backing a League plan to end the crisis.

“I hope these two countries will alter their position concerning the draft UN Security Council resolution which would adopt the Arab plan,” he said, according to Egypt’s official MENA news agency. The League plan looks to a halt in the violence and Assad transferring power to his deputy ahead of negotiations - a formula flatly rejected by Damascus.

Moscow opposes the draft UN resolution, and it has proposed its own draft assigning equal blame for the violence on both Assad and the opposition, an option dismissed by the West.

Russia has close trade ties with its Soviet-era ally, signing a new warplane delivery contract with Damascus this month, and it leases a Syrian port on the Mediterranean for its navy.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon said Sunday that Assad must end the killings.

“First and foremost, he must stop immediately the bloodshed,” Ban told reporters. “The Syrian leadership should take a decisive action at this time to stop this violence. All the violence must stop.”

But Syrian Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar said the authorities were determined to “cleanse” the country and restore order.

“The security forces are determined to carry on the struggle to cleanse Syria of renegades and outlaws... to restore safety and security,” SANA quoted Shaar as saying.