x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

More deaths in Homs as Syrian forces open fire on funeral

Security forces opened fire at a funeral procession yesterday for 10 people killed the day before during a security sweep, killing at least 10 more people, according to activists.

DAMASCUS // Syrian security forces opened fire at a funeral procession yesterday, killing at least 10 people in a city that has been besieged for days by some of the most serious violence yet in the country's four-month-old uprising, activists said.

Yesterday's killings bring the death toll in Homs to about 50 people since Saturday, according to a range of activists, human rights groups and witnesses. Syria has banned independent media coverage, making it difficult to confirm accounts from witnesses or Syrian authorities.

"We haven't slept since yesterday," a Homs resident said in a telephone interview, the sharp crackle of heavy machine-gun fire in the background. "I am laying down on the floor as I talk to you. Other people are hiding in bathrooms."

He described Homs as a "ghost city", with most people holed up inside their homes.

He asked that his name not be published for fear of reprisals from the government.

The shooting outside the Khaled bin Al Waleed mosque erupted shortly after noon as families held funeral processions for 10 people killed the day before during a security sweep, said the Local Coordination Committees, which help organise and track the protests in Syria.

A mother of one of the men being buried was believed to be among the victims.

Syrian troops have been conducting operations in Homs since late on Monday after reports of a wave of sectarian killings that left some 30 people dead over the weekend. Activists reported that people were killed in clashes between Christians, Sunnis, and Alawites from President Bashar Al Assad's minority community.

Activists have said the violence in Homs could spark a dangerous turning point in the pro-democracy protests. The activist Abdel Karim Rihawi described it as a "dangerous signal of the break-up of Syrian society".

However, Ammar Qorabi, the head of the National Organisation for Human Rights, said: "Residents of Homs have denounced the rumours, spread by parties close to the regime, about sectarian clashes. In fact, it is plain-clothed agents of the security services and army who are attacking civilians."

Rami Abdel Rahman, the director of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said at the weekend that the fighting in Homs erupted after three regime supporters, who had been kidnapped last week, were killed and their dismembered bodies returned to their relatives.

"These clashes are a dangerous development that undermines the revolution and serves the interests of its enemies who want it to turn into a civil war," he said.

Members of Syria's Alawite community, which numbers two million, have held key positions within the regime since 1970, when Mr Al Assad's late father, Hafez, led the ruling Baath party to power.

Alawites, a breakaway branch of the Shiite branch of Islam, make up 10 per cent of the 22 million population, while Christians also represent around 10 per cent.

Rights groups have said that more than 1,600 people, most of them unarmed civilians, have been killed in the crackdown on a largely peaceful protest movement.

The government has disputed that toll and blames the violence on gunmen and religious extremists looking to stir up sectarian strife.

Some 300 people fleeing the chaos in Syria arrived in neighbouring Lebanon late on Monday as the Syrian army boosted its presence along the border area, a local Lebanese official said yesterday.

Meanwhile in Cairo, the Arab League head, Nabil El Arabi, said he visited Syria last week to discuss the "necessity of reform", but declined to give details of a meeting with Mr Al Assad.

Mr El Arabi met Mr Al Assad as part of a regional tour and was quoted by media as saying the League did not accept "outside interference in the internal affairs of the Arab countries", even as diplomatic pressure mounted on Damascus.

The League has kept a low profile in discussing the Syrian protests and Mr El Arabi's predecessor only voiced "worry", signalling division in the 22-member body over how to proceed.

"I met with President Bashar Al Assad ... I spoke to him about the necessity of reform and I received a promise from him that he will work on that," said Mr El Arabi, who was named as the League's new secretary general in May.

"This is all I will say and I cannot clarify more on that."

Diplomatic pressure mounted on Mr Al Assad on Monday after Qatar, previously a supporter, shut its embassy in Damascus. The European Union, meanwhile, said it was considering tougher sanctions.

Analysts have said the Arab League's reticence may be a reflection of fears of what the Middle East may look like without Mr Al Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for 41 years.

* With reporting by Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters