The United States has closed its embassy in Syria and pulled all remaining diplomats out of the country, citing worsening security. The move came as government forces intensified their rocket and mortar assault on the restive city of Homs.

The U.S. State Department said Monday that embassy functions have been suspended and that Ambassador Robert Ford and other staff have left the country. The U.S. had warned last month it would close its mission in Damascus unless Syria’s government addressed security considerations, including the safety of its personnel.

The move further isolates President Bashar al-Assad’s government over its bloody crackdown on anti-government protesters and comes amid more violence across the country.

Rights activists said at least 24 people were killed and many more wounded in Homs as Syrian troops continued a sustained attack, with shells slamming into a field hospital and residential areas. Several neighborhoods in the city, such as Baba Amr, are under the control of anti-government rebels.

Syria’s state-run news agency reported a gas pipeline also exploded in Homs, blaming “terrorist gangs.” The government denied shelling the city. At least 10 more people were reported killed in violence elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Russia fought back against mounting criticism from the West for vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have backed an Arab League call for Mr. Assad to step aside.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said condemnations of Moscow’s veto last week had verged on “hysteria.” He will travel to Damascus Tuesday along with Russia’s foreign intelligence chief for talks with Mr. Assad.
China also strongly defended its rejection of the U.N. resolution, saying the plan’s Arab and Western backers had pushed through the vote while different sides were still “seriously divided.”

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said Monday that Beijing’s goal is to avoid more conflict and that it does not want to deliberately oppose anyone, such as Mr. Assad.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the double veto “a travesty,” while French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said some political cultures “deserve a kick in the ass.” The Syrian National Council said the Russian and Chinese vetoes had given Mr. Assad a “license to kill.”

In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama vowed to apply sanctions and increase pressure on Mr. Assad, but said the Syrian crisis could be resolved without outside military intervention. With diplomacy at an impasse, Secretary Clinton has called for “friends of democratic Syria” to unite and rally against the Assad regime.

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Monday demanded the international community take “crucial measures to protect innocent lives and end the bloodshed” in Syria. He warned the continued violence threatened regional stability.

Syrian army defectors announced the formation of a higher military council to “liberate” the country from Mr. Assad’s rule. The group, based in neighboring Turkey, named the head of “The Higher Revolutionary Council” as General Mustafa Ahmed al-Sheikh, the highest ranking deserter to have defected so far.

Syria’s opposition uprising against Mr. Assad’s autocratic rule has escalated in recent months into open conflict between rebels and pro-Assad forces. Last month, the United Nations estimated the death toll from the unrest at 5,400 before it stopped updating the figure because of difficulties in obtaining information.

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