BEIRUT — Dozens of bodies were dumped in the streets of a Syrian city at the heart of the country's nearly 9-month-old uprising, a grim sign that sectarian bloodshed is escalating as the country descends further toward civil war.
The discovery in the streets of Homs came as the United States stepped up pressure Tuesday on the regime of President Bashar Assad to end its crackdown on the anti-government protests. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met in Geneva with Syrian opposition figures and Washington said it was sending its ambassador back to Damascus.
Up to 50 people were killed in Homs on Monday, but details about what happened in Syria's third-largest city only came to light Tuesday with reports of retaliatory attacks pitting members of the Alawite sect against Sunnis.
The sectarian violence is a dire development in Syria, and one that opposition members say plays directly into the regime's hands. Since the uprising began, Assad portrayed himself as the lone force who can ward off the radicalism and sectarianism that have bedeviled neighbors in Iraq and Lebanon.
Opposition figures have accused Assad's minority Alawite regime of trying to stir up trouble with the Sunni majority to blunt enthusiasm for the uprising.
"It was an insane escalation," activist Mohamed Saleh told The Associated Press by telephone from Homs. "There were kidnappings and killings in a mad way. People are afraid to go out of their homes."
Thirty-four of the dead were shot execution-style, their bodies dumped in a public square, according to Saleh and others who monitor the violence, including the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Saleh said all were from the predominantly Sunni district of Jabb al-Jandali. He said Alawite gunmen had raided the district after an Alawite was found dead earlier.
A Homs government official confirmed only that 43 bodies were found Monday in Homs. He asked that his name not be published because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
The reports could not be independently confirmed. Syria has banned most foreign journalists and prevents the work of independent media.
With 4,000 people dead across Syria in the uprising, the conflict is no longer just a matter of government forces firing on peaceful protesters looking to topple Assad's autocratic regime.
The government also has been facing strong resistance from army defectors who have taken refuge in Homs. But sectarian overtones are building as well, because the uprising has unearthed long-simmering grievances that are now exploding into violence.
Alawite control has bred resentments, which 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.
Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, says extremists pushing a foreign agenda to destabilize Syria are behind the unrest, not true reform-seekers aiming to open the country's autocratic political system.
Assad has responded with once-unthinkable promises of reform in one of the most authoritarian states in the Middle East. But he simultaneously unleashed the military to crush the protests with tanks and snipers.
Nowhere is the violence more pronounced than in Homs, a city of 800,000 people that is the epicenter of the revolt, located about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of the capital, Damascus.
Some areas where resistance to the regime is strongest are devastated. Children have been out of school since October in some neighborhoods and people must line up to buy bread and fuel, Saleh said. Conditions are "catastrophic," he said.
In other areas closer to the city center, the threat of violence is ever present. Many residents say the shabiha – Alawite gunmen who act as hired muscle for the regime – are forcing people to go to work despite the presence of snipers and gunmen on the streets, all to give the appearance of life going on as normal.
In other areas, anti-regime gunmen force people to stay home.
"It's complete chaos, each side blames the other, and we don't know who is responsible," Saleh said. "In some districts, it's like civil war."
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.
The unrest has drawn strong international condemnation from Syria's Arab neighbors and Western countries, which have isolated Assad and imposed suffocating sanctions to punish the regime.
Clinton held a rare meeting with Syrian opposition figures in Geneva, telling a group of seven Syrian pro-reform activists that she wanted to hear their plans to establish a new democratic government if they are successful in prying Assad from power. Her invitation was a step short of endorsement, but a clear sign the U.S. wants to work closely with those who might assume leadership roles.
"Obviously, a democratic transition is more than removing the Assad regime. It means setting Syria on the path of the rule of law," Clinton told the activists, who are all exiles in Europe and belong to the Syrian National Council, one of several umbrella groups for Assad foes.
Also Tuesday, the State Department said U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford is returning to his post in Damascus. Ford, who was recalled in October, is due to return to Syria overnight despite the continuing crackdown. The Obama administration has argued that Ford's presence in Syria is important for advancing U.S. policy goals by meeting with opposition figures and serving as a witness to the ongoing violence.
In September, Ford and several colleagues were pelted with tomatoes and eggs by a violent mob as they entered the office of a prominent opposition figure. No one was hurt.
International intervention, such as the NATO action in Libya that helped topple longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, is all but out of the question in Syria, in part because of fears that the move could spread chaos across the Middle East.
But the Arab League has piled on economic sanctions to try to end the violence, adding to measures already taken by the U.S., European Union, Turkey and others.
On Monday, Syria said it would agree to allow Arab League observers into the country as part of a plan to end the bloodshed, but it placed a number of conditions, including the cancellation of deeply embarrassing economic sanctions by the 22-member organization.
Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby swiftly rebuffed Damascus' demands, and the Syrian opposition accused Assad's regime of wasting time and trying to trick Arab leaders into reversing the punitive measures.
Arab League foreign ministers will meet in Cairo Dec. 15 to discuss the sanctions.
Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut, Anne Gearan in Geneva and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this story.