BEIRUT - Syrian activists said Monday that pro-government gunmen have killed at least 16 people — including children — in a rebel stronghold recaptured by the government in the embattled central city of Homs.
The state media in Damascus, which often ignores claims by activists, confirmed killings in Homs but blamed "armed terrorists" as it frequently calls those behind the uprising.
Fresh from stamping out rebel centres 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 neighbourhoods.
They will add to the pressure on U.N. Security Council members who are meeting to decide what to do next to stop the violence, as the international community's current ongoing effort — a peacemaking mission by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan — falters 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 gunmen known as "shabiha" who have been playing a major role in crushing the year-old uprising.
The state media in Damascus, which often ignores claims by activists, confirmed the deaths but blamed "armed terrorists" — the phrase normally used for those whom it claims are behind the uprising.
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, 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 neighbourhoods 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 that after the killings, many people fled Karm el-Zeytoun as well as the nearby neighbourhoods of Bab Dreb and Nazihin, for fear 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.
The Observatory called on the United Nations to form an independent investigative committee to find "those committing massacres and have them face justice."
"The regime aims to terrify people and put down the revolution," said Syria-based activist Mustafa Osso, who also blamed the shabiha for the attack.
He says new protests broke out in several areas around the country to condemn the latest killings in Homs.
The LCC called for a day of mourning Tuesday and urged Syrians to close their shops and abstain from going to work, schools and universities. The group urged citizens to carry black ribbons and flags and wear black shirts in sign of mourning.
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.
The bloody conflict in Syria is likely to dominate public and private talks Monday when key ministers meet at the United Nations on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and challenges from the Arab Spring.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will hold bilateral talks as ministers from the 15 council nations attend an open Security Council meeting to look ahead after last year's Arab uprisings.
Much attention is likely to be focused on the private meeting between Clinton and Lavrov, which is expected to be dominated by serious differences over how to address the violence in Syria, which the U.N. estimates has killed over 7,500 people.
"We have been used to the escalation by armed terrorist groups before meetings at the Security Council with the aim of inciting stances against Syria," state-run news agency SANA quoted the unnamed Syrian official as saying.
An international push to end Syria's conflict has stalled as U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan left Damascus on Sunday without a cease-fire deal.
Western and Arab powers are struggling for ways to stem the bloodshed in the year-old conflict while both the regime and the opposition reject dialogue. Annan appeared to make little progress during two meetings with Assad during his first trip to Syria as the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy.
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. After meeting with Assad on Sunday, Annan said he had presented steps to ease the crisis, but gave no details.
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, hundreds of Kurds marched to mark the eighth anniversary of clashes between Syrian Kurds and security forces that began in the city then spread to the nearby cities of Hasaka and Aleppo. The 2004 violence left 25 killed and 100 wounded.
Kurds — the largest ethnic minority in Syria — make up 15 per cent of the country's 23 million people and have long complained of neglect and discrimination. However, since the uprising began they have not taken a major role in anti-Assad activities.
The gathering in Qamishli observed a moment of silence to protest the killings of civilians in Homs, said Osso, who spoke from the area.
- Kofi Annan