Activists: Civilians 'massacred' in central Syria

BASSEM MROUE
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In this Sunday, March 11, 2012 photo, a man carries a boy who was severely wounded during heavy fighting between Syrian rebels and government forces in Idlib, north Syria. Syrian activists said Monday that pro-government gunmen have killed several people including children in a rebel stronghold recaptured by the government in the embattled central city of Homs. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian activists said Monday that pro-government gunmen killed at least 16 people — including children — in a rebel stronghold recaptured by the government in the embattled city of Homs, fueling concerns the government is carrying out reprisals in territory it has captured.

State media in Damascus, which often ignores activists' claims, confirmed killings in Homs but blamed "armed terrorists" as it frequently calls those behind the uprising.

Fresh from stamping out rebel centers of resistance in Homs, government forces are pressing on with new offensives in other parts of central and northern Syria. The reports of the killings add to concerns that the hundreds of civilian deaths caused by the fighting will be compounded by reprisals against opposition supporters in the recaptured towns and neighborhoods.

The reports add to the pressure on U.N. Security Council members who are meeting to decide what to do next to stop the violence. A peacemaking mission by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan faltered with both government and opposition refusing to talk to one another.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 16 people were killed Sunday night while the Local Coordination Committees said 45 were "murdered." Both groups said children were among the dead.

They accused "shabiha," gunmen akin to a militia that basically do the government's bidding and who have played a major role in crushing the year-old uprising, of carrying out the killings.

Homs is the Syrian city hardest hit by violence since the uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime began in March last year. Several Homs neighborhoods, including Karm el-Zeytoun where Sunday's deaths occurred, were controlled by rebels and retaken by government forces earlier this month.

Karm el-Zeytoun has witnessed intense anti-regime protests in the past months. It is one of several neighborhoods in Homs that have large populations both of Alawites — a Shiite offshoot that dominates the Damascus regime — and of Sunnis — who make up much of the opposition against it.

The Observatory said after the killings many people fled Karm el-Zeytoun and other nearby neighborhoods, fearing pro-government gunmen might carry out similar attacks.

Pictures posted online by activists showed the bodies of five children who were disfigured after being apparently hit with sharp objects. At least six dead adults were covered with sheets.

An amateur video posted online showed men wrapping the bodies of the dead with white cloth in accordance with Muslim tradition before burial.

"This is what they do to us, the Sunnis. The Sunnis are being wiped out, they are the ones who are dying at the hands of Iran and the Shiites," shouted a man in the background. Shiite Iran is one of the Assad regime's few remaining allies.

"We tell Bashar that your punishment will be harsh," the man shouted. The authenticity of the video could not be independently confirmed.

Another video aired on state-run Syrian TV, showed bodies of three different places in Karm el-Zeytoun.

The first was of a family killed inside their home showing a dead man on what appeared to be a couch with children next to him. The other was of three handcuffed men on the side of a street while the third was in a building under construction where five bodies were laying on the ground.

It was not clear if the family shown on state TV was the same that activists posted in their picture. The TV did not say when the killing occurred or how many people died.

Syria's state-run media quoted an unnamed official as saying that armed groups in some areas in Homs are kidnapping people, then killing and disfiguring them in order to bring international condemnation to the regime.

Assad's regime blames the uprising on armed groups and terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy.

But activist groups such as the Observatory, put the blame squarely on the government. The Observatory called on the United Nations to investigate the deaths.

"The regime aims to terrify people and put down the revolution," said Syria-based activist Mustafa Osso.

He says new protests broke out around the country to condemn the latest Homs killings.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Syria's president on Monday to take swift action to end the bloody crackdown. He spoke at a meeting Monday of ministers from the 15 council nations that make up the Security Council.

The U.N. head appealed to the divided council — Russia and China have generally opposed outside intervention — to speak with one voice and help Syria "pull back from the brink of a deeper catastrophe."

A private meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is likely to focus on the two countries' serious differences over how to address the violence in Syria. The U.N. estimates over 7,500 people have died since the uprising began.

An international push to end the conflict stalled as the U.N.'s special envoy, Annan, left Damascus Sunday without a cease-fire deal, leaving Western and Arab powers struggling for ways to stem the bloodshed.

Annan was seeking an immediate cease-fire to allow for humanitarian aid and the start of a dialogue between all parties on a political solution. But both the regime and the opposition reject dialogue.

Also Monday, SANA reported that an "armed terrorist group" blew up a pipeline that transports diesel from the central province of Homs to the nearby region of Hama, setting it on fire.

There have been several fires and explosions cutting oil and gas pipelines since the uprising began. Damascus blames them on armed groups but the opposition says they are caused by government shelling.

In the northeastern city of Qamishli, thousands of Kurds marched to mark the eighth anniversary of clashes between Syrian Kurds and security forces. The Observatory said security forces opened fire at the demonstration, wounding at least three people.

Kurds — the largest ethnic minority in Syria — make up 15 percent of the country's 23 million people and have long complained of neglect and discrimination.