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The government largely has sealed off the country from foreign journalists and prevented independent reporting, making it difficult to confirm events on the ground. Key sources of information are amateur videos posted online, witness accounts and details gathered by activist groups.

Violence in Homs earlier this week suggests Syria is sliding toward chaos amid increasing signs that religious and sectarian tensions are growing.

Syria has a volatile sectarian divide, making civil unrest one of the most dire scenarios. The Assad regime is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Alawite control has bred resentments, which Mr. Assad has worked to tamp down by pushing a strictly secular identity. But he now appears to be relying heavily on his Alawite power base, beginning with highly placed relatives, to crush the resistance.

For many Syrians, the uncertainty over the future is cause for alarm in a country with a fragile jigsaw puzzle of Middle Eastern backgrounds including Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Christians, Kurds, Druse, Circassians, Armenians and more.

Although Mr. Assad’s hold on power appears to be firm for now, he is taking increasingly desperate measures to safeguard his grip. Syria has planted land mines along parts of its border with Lebanon and disrupted Internet and telephone service. Some activists have accused Syrian security forces of arresting wounded protesters and even the doctors who treat them.

Syria’s minister of health, Wael Nader Halki, denied reports of security forces entering hospitals to make arrests.

“There have been no arrests from the hospitals,” he told the Associated Press on the sidelines of a World Health Organization meeting in Geneva on Thursday.

Diplomats attending the meeting stressed the technical nature of the event at a time when Syria increasingly is shunned in other United Nations forums such as the Human Rights Council over its crackdown on protesters.

WHO chief Margaret Chan said she hadn’t raised the issue of arrests in hospitals with the Syrian delegation.

“I hear the story from two sides. I stay neutral,” she told the AP. But she added that “health care workers should be given the space to provide care to people. I say this to all countries.”

AP writer Frank Jordans in Geneva contributed to this report.