A coffin is taken from the Mansour Military Hospital in Homs, Syria, earlier… (AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from Beirut — Syrian security forces reportedly 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, about 90 miles north of Damascus. Amateur video 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 antigovernment protests on Friday.
Opposition activists and residents of the city on Tuesday sought to dispel widely circulating rumors that sectarian clashes had overtaken the antigovernment protest movement in their city. A day earlier, it was reported that the bodies of three Alawites had been discovered, sparking sectarian clashes between members of the minority Shiite sect and Sunni Muslims, who have led the four-month uprising against the nation's leading Alawite, Assad.
But a lawyer in Homs, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, insisted that Syrian security forces rather than protesters may have been responsible for a spate of death squad-style mutilation killings. The victims included two Sunnis and a Christian as well as the three Alawites, he said.
"The events in Homs were not in any way sectarian in nature," said the lawyer.
Instead, protesters accused the government of using the threat of sectarian violence that its own supporters have instigated to unleash attacks on 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 of a crackdown. "The Interior Ministry will be firm in dealing with these armed and terrorist members and will use all means necessary to reduce their danger and preserve the safety of the homeland and the citizens," the source was quoted as saying.
Activists and residents challenged the assertion that ordinary Alawites attacked Sunni neighborhoods in response to the discovery of the Alawite bodies. One witness reached via the Internet said that pro-government Alawite militiamen roamed the streets of two neighborhoods, Wadi Dahab and Nezha, that are home to the minority, calling on their fellow Alawites 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.
State television and official news outlets, which have rarely forgone opportunities to score propaganda points against their opponents, have also been mum about any sectarian violence in Homs.
Two activists attribute the notion of secular violence to a relatively unknown Syrian opposition figure in Britain. A group called the Council of Neighborhoods of Homs accused the opposition figure in Britain of being a member of the security and intelligence branch in Syria. The opposition figure could not be reached by telephone.
"The regime, to gain international legitimacy, has told the world that an end to the Assad regime would mean an end to the Alawites," said another activist in Homs. "This is not true. Many of our friends are Alawites. Many of the Alawites have joined the opposition and have gone to jail for opposing the practices of the regime."
Witnesses said Alawite militiamen who failed to stir up recruits in Alawite neighborhoods attacked a Sunni commercial district, looting and burning down shops while uniformed security men stood idly.
On Monday and Tuesday, other Alawites 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.
According to the account provided by the residents and activists, the city is locked in an escalating cycle of violence all too familiar throughout Syria, with security forces brutally crushing politically charged funeral marches, leading to more deaths and more funerals.
Hajjar is a special correspondent.