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Earlier this month, two Al-Ikhbariya employees were shot and seriously wounded by gunmen in the northwestern town of Haffa while covering clashes between government troops and insurgents.

Much of the violence that has gripped Syria in the uprising has been sanctioned by the government to crush dissent. But rebel fighters are launching increasingly deadly attacks on regime targets, and several massive suicide attacks this year suggest al-Qaida or other extremists are joining the fray.

On Wednesday, the U.N. gave a grim assessment of the crisis, saying the violence has worsened since April, when the cease-fire brokered by Annan was supposed to go into effect. There also were signs the bloodshed is descending into sectarian warfare.

“Where previously victims were targeted on the basis of their being pro- or anti-government, the Commission of Inquiry has recorded a growing number of incidents where victims appear to have been targeted because of their religious affiliation,” a panel of U.N.-appointed human rights experts said in a report released in Geneva.

Sectarian warfare is one of the most dire scenarios in Syria, which for decades managed to ward off the kind of bloodshed that has long bedeviled Iraq and Lebanon.

Sunnis make up most of Syria’s 22 million people, as well as the backbone of the opposition. But the Assads and the ruling elite belong to the tiny Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, which has bred deep resentments.

Several notorious attacks during the uprising appeared to have sectarian overtones — including the Houla massacre in May, when more than 100 people were killed in a collection of villages in central Syria.

Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, who heads a U.N. panel conducting an international investigation of allegations of human rights abuses in Syria, called the country a “crime scene.”

He said the probe into the Houla massacre concluded that forces loyal to the regime “may have been responsible” for many of the deaths. Investigators have said pro-regime, Alawite gunmen known as shabiha were believed to be responsible for at least some of the killings.

Houla leans toward the opposition, and most of the victims were women and children who were slain in their homes, the report said.

“The manner in which these killings took place resembles those previously and repeatedly documented to have been committed by the government,” Pinheiro told the U.N.’s top human rights body in Geneva.

A final position on who was responsible for the massacre would require more work, Pinheiro said. But he said interviews conducted by the commission “indicated that government forces and shabiha have committed acts of sexual violence against men, women and children.”

The U.N.’s deputy envoy for Syria, Jean-Marie Guehenno, told the Human Rights Council that the violence has “reached or even surpassed” levels seen before the April 12 cease-fire.

Fayssal al-Hamwi, the Syrian ambassador in Geneva, said the allegations against the government are “quite fantastic.” Calling the council meeting blatantly political, he said he no longer wished to participate and strode out in protest.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she has “great hope” that the Geneva meeting can be a turning point in the crisis.

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