16 killed in Homs as prospect of sectarian strife looms

Deaths come after at least 6 die in inter-religious civilian clashes; Qatar closes Damascus embassy.

Syrian protesters Damascus_311 (photo credit: Ho New / Reuters)
Syrian protesters Damascus_311
(photo credit: Ho New / Reuters)
Syrian troops and militiamen loyal to President Bashar Assad killed 16 people in attacks in the city of Homs on Tuesday, residents said, an escalation of a crackdown against a focal point for pro-democracy protests. The deaths come a day after at least six people were killed in sectarian clashes, raising the specter of internecine conflict in the ethnically and religiously divided country.
Among those killed Tuesday were three mourners at a funeral for 10 people who were killed by security forces the day before, local activists said.
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"We could not bury the martyrs at the city's main cemetery so we opted for a smaller cemetery near the mosque, when the militiamen began firing at us from their cars," one mourner told Reuters.
Syria saw its first major sectarian violence in four months of protests when at least six people were killed - some reports put the death toll has high as 30 - in weekend clashes in Homs between members of the minority Alawite sect, who dominate the security apparatus, and the majority Sunni population.
Homs, a mostly Sunni city that has seen an influx of Alawites in the last 20 years as the community firmed its grip on the security and public jobs, has been a focal point of the uprising since the military stormed its main Sunni districts two months ago to crush protests calling for Assad to quit. Alawites make up an estimated 20 percent of the population of Homs but as a result of preferential treatment by the state, hold 60 percent of the public sector jobs in the city, which is also the familial hometown of Assad's wife Asma.
One resident of Homs, a lawyer who did not want to be identified, said tribal members in the Khaldieh area had responded to attacks by Alawite militiamen from the Nozha area on their shops by killing several of the gunmen.
"The Christians are staying out of this," he said. "Basically you have two armed neighborhoods in Homs and the tribes are now starting to settle scores with the regime," the lawyer said.
"The magic is turning against the magician. The regime thought that if it feeds the tribes and allows them to carry AK-47s it will secure their loyalty forever," he said. "The repression, however, is turning them into insurgents".
The six deaths reported in Homs' Khalidiya and Bab Amr neighborhoods on Tuesday brought the total death count since the weekend to at least 30, activists and residents said.
The Syrian National Human Rights Organization said seven people were killed over the weekend in attacks by security forces. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the bodies of 30 people were found in Homs over the weekend, and that some were mutilated.
"After failing to ignite a sectarian civil war, the regime is expanding military operations to subdue the mass protests in Homs," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told Reuters.
Human rights organizations say troops, security forces and militiamen killed at least 1,400 civilians in Syria, adding that more than 12,000 Syrians and security personnel who refused to fire at civilians had been shot dead.
Diplomatic pressure mounted on Assad on Monday after Qatar, previously a major supporter, shut its embassy in Damascus and the European Union said it was considering tougher sanctions.
Qatar was a major backer of Syria until protests broke out in March, but relations deteriorated when Sunni Muslims began to be killed by Assad's security forces, whose leaders, like the president, belong to the minority Alawite sect.
Meanwhile, Arab League head Nabil Elaraby said Tuesday he has visited Syria to discuss the "necessity of reform", but declined to give details of a meeting with Assad.
Elaraby met Assad as part of a regional tour last week and was quoted by media as saying the League did not accept "outside interference in the internal affairs of the Arab countries." The League has kept a low profile in discussing the Syrian protests and Elaraby's predecessor only voiced "worry", signaling division in the 22-member body over how to proceed.
"I met with President Bashar Assad ... I spoke to him about the necessity of reform and I received a promise from him that he will work on that," Elaraby said. "This is all I will say and I cannot clarify more on that." "I have been careful to emphasize the importance of listening and fulfilling the demands of the Arab peoples," he added, but declined to say what he was seeking to do in Syria.
That reserve contrasts with the role the League played in paving the way for NATO military strikes on Libya when it asked the UN Security Council to impose a no-fly zone to protect civilians in a rebellion against Muammar Gaddafi.
"On Syria ... it has to be clear that the Arab League ... is a diplomatic institution," he said. "Not all that is being said inside closed rooms could be discussed with the media." Reuters contributed to this report.
Reuters contributed to this report.