At least 26 children were killed in violence in Syria on Monday, a watchdog said, fuelling international calls for a war crimes probe into the 22-month conflict.
Reports of the child deaths came as Human Rights Watch accused President Bashar al-Assad’s regime of expanding its use of banned cluster bombs.
Eight of the children were killed in an air strike on the town of Moadamiyat al-Sham, southwest of Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Five women were also killed.
“The children, all members of the same clan, were aged between six months and nine years old,” said the head of the Britain-based Observatory, Rami Abdel Rahman.
State television blamed “terrorists” for the deaths.
Also near the capital, four other children were killed, including two siblings, the Observatory said.
Eight children were killed in the northern province of Aleppo -- five of them in an air strike.
Six more children died in other flashpoints in the strife-torn country.
The Observatory says that more than 3,500 children have been killed since the Syrian conflict erupted in March 2011. The United Nations says more than 60,000 people have died in all, while the Observatory reported at least 126 killed on Monday alone.
Meanwhile, an international aid organization cited such raids, along with rape and widespread destruction, as key factors in the exodus of more than a half-million Syrians to neighboring countries since the conflict began in March 2011.
The International Rescue Committee said it could be "months, if not years" before the refugees can return home and warned that Syria's civil war could enflame tensions in the Middle East.
The Syrian regime and the opposition have been accused of committing atrocities, but the United Nations says the government and its allies have been more culpable. U.N. rights chief Navi Pillay has also called for Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court.
“We are firmly of the view that the Security Council must ensure accountability for the crimes that seem to have been and continue to be committed in the Syrian Arab Republic and send a clear signal to the Syrian authorities,” read the letter sent by Switzerland on behalf of more than 50 states.
“The situation on the ground has only become more desperate, with attacks on the civilian population and the commission of atrocities having almost become the norm,” read the letter, supported by permanent council members France and Britain.
The United States, China and Russia, the other three permanent council members, are not members of the ICC.
World powers are divided over how to stop the escalating violence in Syria and the 15-member council is unlikely to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court in The Hague - which is not an official U.N. body.
Permanent Security Council members Russia and China have acted as Syria's protector on the council by repeatedly blocking Western efforts to take stronger U.N. action - such as imposing sanctions - against the Syrian government to try to end the war.
“At the very least, the council should send out an unequivocal message urging the Syrian authorities and all other parties to fully respect international human rights and humanitarian law in the ongoing conflict,” read the letter.
The letter said the council should announce “that it intends to refer the situation to the ICC unless a credible, fair and independent accountability process is being established in a timely manner.”
Syria is not a party to the Rome Statute, which set up the International Criminal Court, so the only way the court can investigate the situation is if it receives a referral from the Security Council. The council has previously referred conflicts in Libya and Darfur, Sudan to the court.
International peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has unsuccessfully tried to get Russia and the United States to agree on how to end the violence in Syria.
Brahimi has said the main sticking point was the issue of Assad. The United States, European powers and Gulf-led Arab states insist he must step down to end the war, but Russia has said Assad's exit cannot be a precondition for a peace deal.
Brahimi’s predecessor, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, warned on Monday that if no political proposals were put forward then a stalemate could be created. Annan had blamed the Security Council impasse for hampering his six-month bid to broker peace and leading to his decision to step down.
“Those who are saying mediation is a waste of time have offered no alternative, they are hoping for intervention, but I haven’t seen any countries lining up to intervene,” Annan told reporters. “You have a situation where you have a sectarian war coming up and Syria can explode beyond its borders.”