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Syria's use of 'new horrific tactics' during onslaught is decried by U.S.

The United States accused the Syrian government of using "new horrific tactics" Monday, as U.N. observers reported that Syrian helicopters were firing on rebellious areas and concerns mounted that civilians were trapped in besieged cities.

Violence in Syria has spiked in recent weeks, as both sides ignore an internationally brokered cease-fire that was supposed to go into effect April 12 but never took hold.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland expressed concern about reports the regime "may be organizing another massacre" in Latakia province, where U.N. monitors have been impeded.

Speaking to reporters in Washington, Nuland warned, "People will be held accountable."

Activists reported more than 50 people killed across Syria on Monday, with clashes between military forces and rebel fighters in Homs, Idlib and Latakia provinces.

According to videos posted online, fireballs of orange flame and black rubble exploded into the air as waves of shells pounded residential buildings in the central city of Homs on Monday. The sounds of shells whooshed through the sky amid sporadic machine gun fire.

Syrian soldiers chased down and killed rebels who set fire to one of their tanks in a farming area close to the Orontes River in the Idlib province, said Rami Abdul-Rahman of the Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which uses a network of sources on the ground.

The attack killed seven soldiers and a civilian, he said. There was no confirmation from state media.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon demanded an immediate end to the "dangerous intensification" of violence across Syria and called on all countries with influence to urge the parties "to pull back from the brink."

International envoy Kofi Annan said he was "gravely concerned" about the escalation of fighting in Syria, citing the shelling of opposition areas in central Homs province and reports of mortar, helicopter and tank attacks in the town of Haffa and its surrounding villages in Latakia province on the Mediterranean coast. Annan urged that both sides "take all steps to ensure that civilians are not harmed," said his spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi.

Syrian activists say 13,000 people have been killed since the uprising against the regime of Bashar Assad began in March 2011. The situation has grown increasingly chaotic in recent months, and it is difficult to assign blame for much of the bloodshed. The government restricts journalists from moving freely, making it nearly impossible to independently verify accounts from either side.

There are no prospects for a NATO intervention like the one that helped topple Libya's Moammar Gadhafi -- in part because Russia has promised to veto such a plan.

Monday, Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry O. Rogozin defended his country's arms sales to Syria.

"Under no circumstances can the arms supplied to Syria be used against the civilian population," Rogozin was quoted as saying by the ITAR-Tass news agency.