- Associated Press - Monday, March 12, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian activists said Monday that pro-government gunmen have killed at least 16 people — including children — in a rebel stronghold recaptured by the government in the embattled central city of Homs.

The state media in Damascus, which often ignores claims by activists, confirmed killings in Homs but blamed “armed terrorists,” as it frequently calls those behind the uprising.

Fresh from stamping out rebel centers of resistance in Homs, government forces are pressing on with new offensives in other parts of central and northern Syria. The reports of the killings add to concerns that the hundreds of civilian deaths caused by the fighting will be compounded by reprisals against opposition supporters in the recaptured towns and neighborhoods.

They will add to the pressure on U.N. Security Council members, who are meeting to decide what to do next to stop the violence, as the international community’s current ongoing effort — a peacemaking mission by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan — falters with both government and opposition refusing to talk to each other.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 16 people were killed Sunday night, while the Local Coordination Committees said 45 were “murdered.” Both groups said children were among the dead.

They accused gunmen known as “shabiha,” who have been playing a major role in crushing the year-old uprising.

Homs is the Syrian city hardest hit by violence since the uprising against President Bashar Assad’s regime began in March last year. Several Homs neighborhoods, including Karm el-Zeytoun, where Sunday’s deaths occurred, were controlled by rebels and retaken by government forces earlier this month.

Karm el-Zeytoun has witnessed intense anti-regime protests in the past months. It is one of several areas in Homs that have large populations both of Alawites, a Shiite offshoot that dominates the Damascus regime, and of Sunnis, who make up much of the opposition against it.

The Observatory said that after the killings many people fled Karm el-Zeytoun as well as the nearby neighborhoods of Bab Dreb and Nazihin in fear that pro-government gunmen might carry out similar attacks.

Pictures posted online by activists showed the bodies of five children who were disfigured after apparently being hit with sharp objects. At least six dead adults were covered with sheets.

An amateur video posted online showed men wrapping the bodies of the dead with white cloth in accordance with Muslim tradition before burial.

“This is what they do to us, the Sunnis. The Sunnis are being wiped out; they are the ones who are dying at the hands of Iran and the Shiites,” shouted a man in the background. Shiite Iran is one of the Assad regime’s few remaining allies.

“We tell Bashar that your punishment will be harsh,” the man shouted. The authenticity of the video could not be independently confirmed.

The Observatory called on the United Nations to form an independent investigative committee to find “those committing massacres and have them face justice.”

“The regime aims to terrify people and put down the revolution,” said Syria-based activist Mustafa Osso, who also blamed the shabiha for the attack.

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