Sectarian Violence Takes Heavy Toll in a Tense Syrian City


BEIRUT, Lebanon – In one of the worst episodes of sectarian carnage in Syria since the uprising began nine months ago, dozens of corpses were recovered from the streets of Homs this week, some of them dismembered, decapitated and bearing signs of torture, activists and residents said Tuesday.
Most of the bloodshed occurred Monday, as Homs, the central Syrian city, was convulsed by kidnappings, random shootings and tit-for-tat killings, activists said. In the worst incident, 36 bodies were dumped in a square in a neighborhood that sits along a fault line between the city’s Sunni Muslim majority and its Alawite minority, said Mohammed Saleh, a 54-year-old activist there who has tried to stanch the growing sectarian tension.
"What happened yesterday is a massive crime,” he said by phone. “I am in pain, so much pain. I was getting a call every minute telling me that someone new got killed.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group based in London, called it “one of the deadliest days since the start of the Syrian Revolution.”
Rumors swirled through Homs, the country’s third-largest city, over who to blame. Mr. Saleh and another activist blamed the government for inciting the tension, hewing to what its opponents see as a long-standing policy to divide and rule. But both said parties on each side, whether for the sake of revenge or incitement, shared a role in the strife.
Residents described themselves as terrified by the seemingly random nature of the violence. Some said they feared to leave their houses after 3 p.m. Others talked of persistent gunfire in a city that has borne the brunt of the government’s crackdown on the uprising.
“It is crazy in Homs,” said a 28-year-old housewife, speaking by phone, who refused to give her name for fear of reprisals. “I don’t know what to say. I feel that all doors are shut and there’s not a trace of hope or light at the end of the tunnel anymore.”
Near the Lebanese border, Homs, like the rest of Syria, has a Sunni Muslim majority. But four neighborhoods have a majority of Alawites, a heterodox Muslim sect from which President Bashar al-Assad draws much of his leadership. Long discriminated against, and still poor even by Syria’s standards, the minority represents the bulk of security forces, which have led the crackdown against the uprising. The city also has a Christian minority, which has generally remained on the sidelines of the deepening conflict.
Time and again, the city has manifested new tendencies within the uprising. It has drawn armed defectors to havens within Homs, and they and allied fighters have fought security forces with growing tenacity. Though less pronounced than the countryside, sectarian tension has mounted, and reports of vendettas have grown since last month. The problem has become so dire in past weeks that opposition groups like the Syrian National Council and Local Coordination Committees have called for restraint by their own supporters, fearing that the problem could spiral out of control.
“We call on the families and relatives of people kidnapped not to be drawn into acts of revenge, which will cost them and their families and pose great dangers to the whole community,” the Local Coordination Committees said in a statement last month.
Monday’s bloodshed appeared the worst so far.
Mr. Saleh, in an account confirmed by an opposition group, said 32 bodies were delivered to the National Hospital in Homs on Monday morning. Kidnappings and killings continued through the day, and Mr. Saleh and other activists said 11 more people were killed. By nightfall, the 36 bodies were dumped in the square in al-Zahra, an Alawite neighborhood, he said. Several residents said the killings grew worse after a report Monday that Syria had agreed, with conditions, to accept the entry of monitors from the Arab League.
“There’s chaos, random killing and many killed unintentionally,” Mr. Saleh said.
The accounts from Homs came against a backdrop of rising pressure on the Syrian government, which finds itself more isolated than perhaps any time in the four decades that the Assad family has ruled the country. Leaders with the Syrian National Council met for the first time Tuesday with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in the highest-level contact the United States has made with the Syrian opposition.
In Cairo, the secretary-general of the Arab League, Nabil al-Araby, warned that Syria may face more steps beyond sanctions imposed last month by the league.
“The pressure is going on until the killing stops,” he said in an interview.
He said a League committee was weighing unspecified further actions but he hoped the current penalties would be enough “to change the course” there. “We hope this crisis will end soon and the Syrian people will have a voice in deciding their own future.”
After a six-week absence, the American ambassador, Robert S. Ford, returned to Damascus. The State Department withdrew Mr. Ford over what it described as threats to his safety after his high-profile visits to Syrian cities and meetings with dissidents.
In Homs, the kidnappings have seemed to terrify people the most, given their random nature. Armed men, both loyal and opposed to the government, have hijacked minivans, and some taxis have stopped driving in Homs for fear of trouble.
The tension has made it even more difficult for activists trying to bridge the sectarian divide. Mr. Saleh is a communist and an Alawite and has tried to act as a mediator. The actress Fadwa Suleiman, also an Alawite, has traveled there in solidarity with the protests. But in an interview Tuesday, she was grim about what was ahead.
“It reminds me of Iraq,” she said.
She said Alawites who are not necessarily pro-government are afraid to leave their homes or express any dissent. Other activists say the Syrian government has been especially harsh with opponents from minorities, which in the most general terms have remained aligned with Mr. Assad out of fear of chaos that might follow his fall.
She called Homs “fertile ground for the regime to do its dirty plans.” “If they want to play the sectarian game here, they can,” she said. “If they want to play the militant Islamist game here, they can. They can play all kinds of games in Homs.”
Reporting was contributed by Hwaida Saad and a New York Times employee in Beirut, Steven Lee Myers in Geneva and David D. Kirkpatrick in Cairo.