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Men ride a motorbike in a damaged neighbourhood in Taftanaz, near Idlib, January 12, 2013. Picture taken January 12, 2013.ABDALGHNE KAROOF/Reuters

At least 21 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, two siblings aged six and seven were killed, the Observatory said.

Six children were killed in the northern city of Aleppo – five of them in an air strike.

Five more children died in other flashpoints in the strife-torn country.

On the diplomatic front, at least 55 countries prepared on Monday to demand that the UN Security Council refer the Syria conflict to the International Criminal Court.

The demand was to be made in a letter organized by Switzerland, which has spent seven months collecting signatories.

Diplomatic sources said that 55 countries had signed and others could still join even though the initiative has little immediate chance of success.

The Security Council is locked in a crippling impasse over the Syria conflict, with permanent members Russia and China having vetoed three resolutions threatening sanctions against Assad.

And with neither being members of The Hague-based ICC court, they would almost certainly reject any new resolution proposing war crimes charges.

On Sunday, Russia said Mr. al-Assad's removal from power was not a part of past international agreements on the crisis and hence impossible to implement.

"This is a precondition that is not contained in the Geneva communiqué [agreed by world powers in June] and which is impossible to implement because it does not depend on anyone," news agencies quoted Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying.

The wrangling comes amid warnings that the conflict, which according to the UN has sent more than 600,000 Syrians fleeing into neighbouring countries, is growing more dangerous for civilians due to the regime expanding its use of cluster bombs.

New York based Human Rights Watch said Damascus was increasingly resorting to firing rockets containing the sub-munitions, after previously using only aircraft to spread the weapons.

Syria "is now resorting to a notoriously indiscriminate type of cluster munition that gravely threatens civilian populations," the director of HRW's arms division Steve Goose said in a statement.

Another aid group said that rape has been a "significant" weapon of war in the conflict, and is the "primary" factor in the exodus of women and children to neighbouring Jordan and Lebanon.

"These rapes, sometimes by multiple perpetrators, often occur in front of family members," said the U.S.-based International Rescue Committee in its report titled, "Syria: A Regional Crisis."

UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who last week dismissed peace proposals by Mr. al-Assad as "one-sided," faced more criticism with Syrian official daily Al-Thawra describing him as an "aging tourist".

"If he doesn't have a solution, he'd better leave the Syrians alone," the paper said.

Rebels control vast swathes of Syria's north and east and are battling Mr. al-Assad's forces in most major cities and on the outskirts of Damascus, but neither side has made any significant progress in the fight for control of urban areas in the past few months.