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Syria Killings: Many Civilians 'Massacred' By Pro-Government Gunmen In Homs, Activists Claim

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SYRIA CRISIS
Syrians stand next to an abandoned army tank in the city of Rastan, near the flashpoint city of Homs, on March 9, 2012. (AFP/Getty Images) | Getty Images

By Oliver Holmes and Mariam Karouny

BEIRUT, March 12 (Reuters) - Dozens of civilians were killed in cold blood in the Syrian city of Homs, opposition activists and Syrian state media said on Monday, although they disputed responsibility for what both sides called a massacre.

The carnage in Homs, as well as a military assault on the northwestern city of Idlib, coincided with a weekend peace mission by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, who left Damascus on Sunday without agreement on a truce or humanitarian access.

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"The terrorist armed groups have kidnapped scores of civilians in the city of Homs, central Syria, killed, and mutilated their corpses and filmed them to be shown by media outlets," state news agency SANA said on its website.

Footage posted by opposition activists on YouTube showed men, women and children lying dead in a blood-drenched room.

The Local Coordination Committees of Syria, a grassroots opposition network, said at least 45 women and children had been stabbed and burned in the Homs district of Karm al-Zeitoun.

It said another seven people were slain in the city's Jobar district, which adjoins the former rebel bastion of Baba Amr.

Activists contacted in Homs accused Alawite "shabbiha" militia loyal to President Bashar al-Assad of carrying out the killings under the protection of regular Syrian military forces.

Waleed Fares, an activist in Homs's Khalidiyah district, which is about one km from Karm al-Zeitoun, said that 30 to 40 tanks had arrived in Karm al-Zeitoun on Sunday night.

"We know now that four families have been killed by shabbiha. We have 21 names and we are trying to confirm the names of the rest," he told Reuters via Skype, adding that the victims were all from Syria's Sunni Muslim majority.

"It's quiet now but I have been hearing gunfire all night."

Fares said most of the killings occurred in Karm al-Zeitoun, but some took place in other districts. "The Free Syrian army helped move the bodies to one place. Otherwise the regime forces would have hidden the evidence," he said.

Syrian government restrictions on the media have made it hard to assess conflicting reports by the authorities and their opponents since an uprising against Assad began a year ago.

SANA said the Homs killings "perpetrated by the armed terrorist groups and aired by (satellite TV channels) Al Jazeera and Arabiya ... coincide with today's U.N. Security Council session to call for foreign interference in Syria".

In the southern city of Deraa, scene of sporadic street fighting between Free Syrian Army rebels and Assad's troops, a car bomb killed a schoolgirl and wounded 25 others at a girls' school. An opposition activist said members of the school had taken part in anti-Assad demonstrations.

U.N. MEETS ON ARAB REVOLTS

The Security Council holds a special meeting on Arab revolts later on Monday and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines.

Russia and China have blocked attempts to pass a Security Council resolution condemning Damascus for its attempts to crush the rebellion, in which the United Nations says well over 7,500 people have been killed. Syrian authorities said in December insurgents had killed over 2,000 soldiers and police.

The United States has drafted a new resolution, but Washington and Paris say they doubt it will be accepted.

China sounded an optimistic note, but gave no details.

"China has actively participated in discussion about this draft resolution, and raised its ideas about revising it," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said on Monday.

"We also support the international community playing an active role in a political solution to the Syria issue."

China and Russia, as well as Western and Arab nations, have voiced support for Annan's peace mission, but no common ground has emerged between Assad, who is bent on crushing dissent, and his opponents, who are determined to overthrow him.

"The situation is so bad and so dangerous that all of us cannot afford to fail," Annan said in Damascus on Sunday.

A U.N. spokesman said the former U.N. chief had met the emir and prime minister of Qatar in Doha on Monday and was heading for Ankara for talks with Turkey's prime minister and foreign minister.

Annan has said he wants a ceasefire and access for humanitarian aid agencies to civilians in strife-hit areas as a first step before a political dialogue among all parties.

Moscow and Beijing want any international blame for the violence to be apportioned evenly and say both sides should be encouraged to stop fighting. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have taken a hawkish line, calling for the rebels to be armed.

"The regime in Syria is committing a massacre of its own citizens," Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said on Sunday after talks with his German counterpart Guido Westerwelle.

Westerwelle said in Riyadh: "We cannot accept the completely unreasonable continuation of the atrocities being perpetrated by the Assad regime against its own people."

Western and Arab countries have sought to isolate Assad, but he has a few allies, notably Iran, which has invited Iraq, Lebanon and Syria to a conference in Tehran on March 18 to "support the Syrian regime against its opponents", the pan-Arab Al Hayat newspaper reported on Monday.

Citing ministerial sources, it said "official Lebanon" had declined the invitation. Lebanon, deeply split over the crisis in its powerful neighbour, has sought to avoid taking sides. (Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Yasmine Saleh in Cairo; Writing by Alistair Lyon; editing by Elizabeth Piper)

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