Middle East

Syrian troops 'kill mourners in Homs assault'

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Security forces have opened fire at a funeral procession in the volatile Syrian city of Homs killing 10 people, activists say.

Witnesses said the shooting took place outside a mosque during funerals for people killed in the past 24 hours.

Amateur video posted on the internet shows a crowd taking part in the procession before gun fire breaks out.

International journalists have been denied access to Syria, making it difficult to verify reports.

Human rights groups and activists say dozens of people have been killed in Homs since Saturday.

The Local Co-ordination Committees, which helps organise anti-government protests, said shooting erupted outside the Khaled bin al-Waleed mosque shortly after noon local time (1000GMT) as families held funeral processions for 10 people killed the previous day.

The mother of one of those being buried was among the victims, activist Mohammed Saleh told AP news agency.

Another Homs resident said snipers were positioned on rooftops, monitoring the largely deserted streets.

"We haven't slept since yesterday," he told AP by telephone, with the sound of machine-gun fire in the background.

Image caption Syria's official news agency has released images of what it says are funerals of policemen in Homs

"I am lying down on the floor as I talk to you. Other people are hiding in bathrooms."

Intense gunfire was reported overnight in Homs, with one resident telling Reuters there were "troops and armoured vehicles in every neighbourhood".

The latest violence is part of a crackdown on the four-month anti-government uprising in the country.

"The irregular forces with [the troops] are death squads," an unnamed resident told Reuters by phone.

"They have been firing indiscriminately since dawn with rifles and machine guns. No-one can leave their homes."

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 30 people died in sectarian fighting on Saturday and Sunday, following the discovery of the mutilated bodies of three regime supporters.

The supporters were reported to be Alawites - the minority sect to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs.

However, the Syrian National Human Rights Organisation said that only seven people were killed in the weekend attacks, which it said were carried out by security forces.

Human rights groups say that about 1,400 civilians and 350 security forces personnel have died since the protests began.

The government blames the unrest on "armed criminal gangs" backed by a foreign conspiracy.

Syria's anti-government protests, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, first erupted in mid-March after the arrest of a group of teenagers who spray-painted a revolutionary slogan on a wall. The protests soon spread, and the UN says 3,500 people have died in the turmoil - mainly protestors but also members of Syria's security forces - while thousands more have been injured.
Although the arrest of the teenagers in the southern city of Deraa first prompted people to take to the streets, unrest has since spread to other areas, including Hama, Homs, Latakia, Jisr al-Shughour and Baniyas. Demonstrators are demanding greater freedom, an end to corruption, and, increasingly, the ousting of President Bashar al-Assad.
The government has responded to the protests with overwhelming military force, sending tanks and troops into towns and cities. Amateur video footage shows tanks and snipers firing on unarmed protesters. There may have been an armed element to the uprising from its early days and army deserters have formed the Free Syrian Army.
Some of the bloodiest events have taken place in the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour. In early June, officials claimed 120 security personnel were killed by armed gangs, however protesters said the dead were shot by troops for refusing to kill demonstrators. As the military moved to take control of the town, thousands fled to neighbouring Turkey, taking refuge in camps.
Although the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo have seen pockets of unrest and some protests, it has not been widespread - due partly to a heavy security presence. There have been rallies in the capital - one with an enormous Syrian flag - in support of President Assad, who still receives the backing of many in Syria's middle class, business elite and minority groups.
The Assad family has been in power for 40 years, with Bashar al-Assad inheriting office in 2000. The president has opened up the economy, but has continued to jail critics and control the media. He is from the minority Alawite sect - an offshoot of Shia Islam - but the country's 20 million people are mainly Sunni. The biggest protests have been in Sunni-majority areas.
The uprising has cost 3,500 lives, according to the UN and Jordan's King Abdullah says that President Assad should now step down. The Arab League has suspended Syria's membership and voted for sanctions. The EU has frozen the assets of Syrian officials, placed an arms embargo on Syria and banned imports of its oil. But fears remain of Syria collapsing into civil war.
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