A crucial East-West showdown over Syria loomed Thursday in the United Nations' Security Council, which scheduled a vote after a last-minute delay failed to get key Western nations and Russia to agree on measures to end the dramatically escalating violence.
The 15-nation council is under pressure to decide on a new Syria resolution because the mandate of the 300-strong UN observer force there expires on Friday, and it must decide by then whether to extend it.
International envoy Kofi Annan had urged the council to postpone Wednesday's scheduled vote so members could "unite and take concerted and strong action that would help stem the bloodshed in Syria and build momentum for a political transition," his spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said.
Britain's UN Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said his country's Western-backed text would be put to a vote at 10 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT) on Thursday.
It threatens non-military sanctions against President Bashar Assad's government if he doesn't withdraw troops and heavy weapons from populated areas within 10 days. It is tied to Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which could eventually allow the use of force to end the conflict.
Russia, which is a close Syrian ally, has said it would veto such a resolution, arguing that the British text amounted to support for the rebels and would lead to more bloodshed. Russia and China have incurred international criticism by twice vetoing U.N. resolutions to increase pressure on Assad.
A deadly bombing Wednesday in the heart of Damascus that killed the defense minister and his deputy, Assad's powerful brother-in-law "only underscores the urgency of decisive council action," Fawzi told UN television.
The vote was initially called for earlier in the week, but it was put off because both sides have been deeply divided. Fawzi said Thursday that Annan had urged the members to delay their meeting until agreement had been reached.
Germany's foreign minister on Thursday appealed to Russia and China to get behind sanctions against the Assad regime at the U.N.
"People are dying, and Moscow and Beijing are still hesitating - this is absolutely worthy of criticism," Guido Westerwelle said in Berlin. "I appeal emphatically to Russia and China to do justice to their political and human responsibility, take responsibility for people in Syria and contribute to the stability of the entire region."
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who was visiting China, also urged the Security Council to "take collective action, with a sense of unity."
After a phone call from President Barack Obama to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday afternoon, the Russian and U.S. ambassadors met at the United Nations but there was no breakthrough.
Nonetheless, diplomats said there was still a last-minute chance for compromise. "Who knows where we're going to end up," US Ambassador Susan Rice told reporters.
If the Western-backed draft resolution is vetoed, Russia could then put its rival text - which makes no mention of sanctions or Chapter 7 - to a vote. But diplomats said Moscow doesn't have the minimum nine "yes" votes required for Security Council approval, so that appears unlikely.
If neither the Western nor the Russian texts are approved, the council would then have until Friday to decide whether to extend the observer mission.
Diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because talks have been private, said a simple resolution extending it for perhaps 30 days is the most likely scenario.
The unarmed observers were authorized for 90 days to monitor a cease-fire and implementation of Annan's six-point peace plan. The U.S. and its European allies contend that with violence escalating dramatically and the failure to implement Annan's plan, there must be consequences for non-compliance.
Diplomats have been scrambling to try to get council to unify, which would send a much stronger signal to Syria.
According to the White House, Putin and Obama agreed that the growing violence in Syria shows the need for a political transition as soon as possible - a key demand of the Annan plan. But the Kremlin said they didn't agree on the measures that need to be taken.
Moscow's rival proposal calls for the "immediate implementation" of Annan's plan and guidelines for a political transition approved at a meeting in Geneva last month, but makes no mention of sanctions.