France has called for a "secured zone to protect civilians" in Syria.

It is the first time a major Western power has suggested international intervention on the ground in the eight-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe also described Syria's exiled opposition National Council as "the legitimate partner with which we want to work".

Asked if a humanitarian corridor was an option for Syria, Mr Juppe ruled out military intervention to create a "buffer zone" in northern Syria, but suggested a "secured zone" may be feasible to protect civilians and ferry in humanitarian aid.

"If it is possible to have a humanitarian dimension for a secured zone to protect civilians, that then is a question which has to be studied by the European Union on the one side and the Arab League on the other side," Mr Juppe said.

A spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the EU was ready to engage with the Syrian National Council and other opposition groups, but stressed the need for them to maintain a peaceful, non-sectarian approach.

Until now, Western countries have imposed economic sanctions on Syria but have shown no appetite for intervention on the ground in the country.

The Arab League has suspended Syria's membership over the conflict - one of the most important signs of Mr Assad's isolation.

Britain said it welcomed the opportunity to discuss the French proposal and repeated its call for Syria to end human rights violations.

The violence in Syria shows no sign of let-up.

Syrian forces killed two villagers yesterday in an agricultural area that has served as a supply line for defectors, activists and residents said.

An armoured column entered the town of Hayaleen and surrounding villages on the al-Ghab Plain.

Troops fired machineguns from tanks and trucks and set fire to several houses after arresting around 100 people, they said.

The United Nations says 3,500 people have been killed in the uprising, triggered by Arab revolts that have toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Mr Assad, 46, seems prepared to fight it out, playing on fears of a sectarian war if Syria's complex ethno-sectarian mosaic shatters.