Syrian security forces allegedly killed at least 16 people in Syria's third-largest city Tuesday. The shootings took place at a funeral procession for victims of the ongoing violence in the city of Homs, 80 miles north of Damascus.
BEIRUT — Syrian security forces allegedly killed at least 16 people in Syria’s third-largest city Tuesday amid allegations that the government of President Bashar Assad was attempting to bolster its widely challenged rule by intensifying the country’s sectarian tensions.
The shootings took place at a funeral procession for victims of the ongoing violence in the city of Homs, 80 miles north of Damascus. Chilling amateur-video footage posted to the Internet by activists showed panicked residents fleeing amid the roar of automatic weapons fire.
At least 30 people have been killed in Homs since a wave of mass anti-government protests on Friday.
Opposition activists and residents of the city on Tuesday sought to dispel widely circulating rumors that sectarian clashes had overtaken the anti-government protest movement in their city. A day earlier, it was reported that the bodies of three Allawites had been discovered, sparking sectarian clashes between members of the minority Shiite sect and Sunni Muslims, who have led the four-month uprising against Assad, the nation’s leading Allawite.
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Protesters accused the Syrian government of using the threat of sectarian violence that its own supporters have instigated to unleash violence against political opponents.
A ministry of interior source cited by the official Syrian Arab News Agency on Monday accused unnamed groups of “sowing sedition” and warned it would crack down hard.
Activists and residents challenged the assertion that ordinary Allawites attacked Sunni neighborhoods in response to the discovery of the Allawite bodies. One witness reached via the Internet said that pro-government Allawite militiamen roamed the streets of two neighborhoods that are home to the minority, Wadi Dahab and Nezha, calling on their coreligionists people to come down to fight. “Very few joined them,” said a Nezha resident.
Even by the standards of a blurry uprising largely inaccessible to international journalists — one pitting a loosely organized protest movement against a collection of the most opaque security forces in the world — the narrative in Homs has been unusual. No names of recent victims have been released, unlike in the past, when both activists and security forces quickly identified their dead.
Syrian state television and official news outlets, which have rarely foregone opportunities to score propaganda points against their opponents, have also been mum about any sectarian violence in Homs.
Two activists attribute the notion of sectarian violence to a relatively unknown Syrian opposition figure in the United Kingdom. Witnesses said Allawite militiamen who failed to stir up recruits in Allawite neighborhoods attacked a Sunni commercial district, looting and burning down shops while uniformed security men stood idly.
On Monday and Tuesday, other Allawites visited Sunni neighborhoods and spoke to protest coordinators to show their solidarity and ease fears on both sides of the increasingly tense sectarian divide, the Nezha resident said.
In the account provided by the residents and activists, the city is locked in an escalating cycle of violence all too familiar throughout Syria.