VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday made an urgent appeal for an end to the violence and bloodshed in Syria and urged its leaders to choose the path of dialogue and peace.

The pope's envoy to Syria last month suggested Christians could mediate in the country's deepening conflict and act as a "bridge" between the government and the opposition.

During his weekly Angelus prayer the pope said he was "following with much apprehension the episodes of dramatic and escalating violence in Syria." "In these past few days, this violence has provoked many victims including several children, and I pray for them, the wounded and all those who suffer from a conflict that remains very worrying."

"I am renewing a pressing call for an end to the violence and the bloodletting," he said.

"I ask the entire world and above all the political authorities in Syria to choose the path of dialogue, reconciliation and commitment in favour of peace," the pontiff said.

"It is urgent to respond to the legitimate aspirations of the different components of the nation, as well as to the wishes of the international community."

Meanwhile, Arab foreign ministers will agree to "open communication channels" with the Syrian opposition, according to a draft resolution of their meeting in Cairo on Sunday.

They will also call on the United Nations Security Council to form a joint UN-Arab League peacekeeping mission in Syria, where a bloody crackdown on dissent has left thousands dead since March.

They will agree to end all diplomatic ties with Damascus, but will leave it to each country to implement that decision.

Meanwhile, Arab and western states are to launch a new bid at the United Nations this week to put pressure on Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, setting off new diplomatic hostilities between Assad's friends and foes.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have drawn up a resolution backing an Arab League plan to end the 11-month-old crackdown on protests which could be voted in the UN General Assembly this week.

This follows Russia and China's veto of virtually the same resolution in the UN Security Council. Russia and China are expected to oppose the new text but noone can veto resolutions in the 193-nation General Assembly, though they carry less weight.

Setting the scene for the confrontation, UN human rights chief Navi Pillay will brief the General Assembly on Monday about Syria. The meeting was called by assembly president Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, who is from Qatar.

Pillay is no longer keeping a count of the dead in Syria as she says accurate information cannot be got. Syrian activist groups say more than 6,000 have died since protests erupted last March.

The draft resolution "fully supports" the plan for Syria agreed by the Arab League last month, calling for Assad to transfer powers to a deputy so that elections can be held.

It condemns violence by all sides in Syria but specifically calls on Assad's government "to immediately put an end to all human rights violations and attacks against civilians."

China and Russia vetoed the UN Security Council resolution on February 4 because they said it was "unbalanced". Russia, in particular, has opposed any move that would force Assad, a key Moscow ally, to stand down.

Russia has signalled that it will maintain a hard line on Syria. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Friday that Russia was ready to follow the Security Council veto with additional "strong measures" should the West continue to refuse to acknowledge the opposition's role in the crisis.

The United Nations leadership is also maintaining its tough stand on Syria with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon repeatedlycalling on the government to end the violence.

Ban reaffirmed in a statement released Friday that "the crisis in Syria can only be solved through a comprehensive peaceful political solution that addresses the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people and ensures the full respect of their human rights and fundamental freedoms."

Two of his key human rights advisors have again warned Assad meanwhile that his "systematic attacks against civilians could constitute crimes against humanity."

Francis Deng, Edward Luck, the secretary general's special advisors on prevention of genocide and the protection of civilians, said they are "alarmed" by accounts of the government shelling of Homs and other cities.

The advisors said that even the government's claims that it is fighting armed groups could not be used as an excuse to fire on civilians.

"They underscore that both state and non-state actors have a responsibility to protect populations and can be held accountable for inciting or committing atrocity crimes," Deng and Luck said in a statement.

The pair said they were also "gravely concerned" by growing tensions among sectarian communities in Syria.