REUTERS | Khaled Yacoub Oweis | July 18, 2011
Syrian forces and militiamen loyal to President Bashar al-Assad killed 10 people in attacks on residential districts in Homs on Monday, the Local Coordination Committees activist group said.
“Tens of people have been also wounded. Security forces and shabbiha (militiamen) are rampaging in streets and firing randomly. Whole neighbourhoods are besieged,” the group said in a statement sent to Reuters.
Syria saw its first major sectarian violence in four months of protests against Assad’s rule when 30 people were killed at the weekend in clashes in Homs between members of the minority Alawite sect, who dominate the security apparatus, and the majority Sunni population.
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.
Assad, an Alawite, has been waging a military campaign to try and crush the uprising for political freedoms, during which troops and security forces killed over 1,400 civilians and arrested over 12,000 Syrians, according to rights campaigners.
A 12-year old boy was among those killed in Homs on Monday the Local Coordination Committees said, adding the attacks focused on the al-Khalidiya district of the city.
The neighbourhood is inhabited by members of Sunni tribes from rural Homs and is near the Alawite district of Nozha, where most of the militiamen and security forces in the city live.
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.
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 neighbourhoods 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”.
Bodies of Assad supporters were returned to their relatives mutilated on the weekend, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
A spokesman for demonstrators in the city said in a statement on Sham News Network Facebook page that 10 people rather than 30 had been killed and that they died in attacks by security forces on the city.
Mohammad Saleh, an activist and a resident of Homs, said group of Alawite men, including four policemen, went missing on Thursday. The bodies of four of them were found on Saturday with their eyes gouged out. Six more bodies were found on Sunday.
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.
Assad had described the uprising as a foreign conspiracy to sow sectarian strife. His opponents argue that the president has been playing on sectarian fears to maintain Alawite support and keep in power his family, which has ruled Syria with an iron fist for 41 years.
Once courted by the West as a possible moderate in the region, is becoming increasingly isolated internationally, with only Iran keeping up its support.
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.
Qatar withdrew its ambassador from Damascus and closed its embassy last week after two attacks on the embassy compound by militiamen loyal to Assad, known as ‘shabbiha’, diplomats in the Syrian capital told Reuters on Monday.
The EU has already imposed travel bans and asset freezes on 34 Syrian individuals and entities, but British Foreign Secretary William Hague said after a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels “work now needs to start so we can add to that if necessary over the coming days and weeks.”
A statement agreed by the ministers in Brussels said: “Until the unacceptable violence against the civilian population is halted… the EU will pursue and carry forward its current policy, including through sanctions.” it said.
In eastern Syria, residents of Albu Kamal, on the border with Iraq, held talks on Monday with troops besieging the town to avoid an assault after defections among security forces who had tried to quell street demonstrations there, residents said.
Residents said Alawite troops were sent from the west of the country after thousands took to the streets, prompted by killings by Military Intelligence agents of five protesters on Saturday, including a 14-year-old boy.
The crowds overwhelmed soldiers and secret police. Residents said around 100 Air Force Intelligence personnel and the crew of at least four armoured vehicles joined the protesters.
“A senior Alawite officer from (the port city) of Tartous is now talking with Albu Kamal notables to hand over within 10 days weapons stockpiles the protesters seized after the defections,” said one activist, who declined to be named for fear of arrest.
Albu Kamal is on the eastern edge of the province of Deir al-Zor, where hundreds of thousands protested on Friday. The region, at the centre of Syria’s 380,000 barrels per day oil output, is still among the poorest in the country with little of the oil revenue invested in the area.
(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny and Oliver Holmes in Beirut, and by David Brunnstrom and Ilona Wissenbach in Brussels; Writing by Jon Hemming, editing by Matthew Jones)