Syria forces fire on funeral procession

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian security forces opened fire on a funeral procession Tuesday, killing up to 10 people in a city that has been besieged for days by some of the most severe violence seen during the country's four-month-old uprising, activists said.

Dozens of people — possibly as many as 50 — have been killed in Homs since Saturday, according to activists, human rights groups and witnesses. Syria has banned independent media coverage, making it difficult to verify accounts from witnesses or Syrian authorities.

"We haven't slept since yesterday," a Homs resident told The Associated Press by telephone, the cracks of heavy machine-gun fire in the background. "I am lying down on the floor as I talk to you. Other people are hiding in bathrooms."

Snipers were positioned on rooftops, keeping a close watch on the deserted streets, he said, asking that has named not be published for fear of reprisals.

The shooting outside the Khaled bin Al-Waleed mosque erupted shortly after noon as families held funeral processions for 10 people killed a day before during a security sweep, said the Local Coordination Committees, an umbrella group that helps organize and document the protests in Syria.

The mother of a man being buried was among those killed at the funeral procession, said Mohammed Saleh, an activist in Homs.

The LCC confirmed 10 people were killed in the funeral procession shooting, said a spokesman for the group, Omar Idilbi. The figure could not be independently confirmed.

Damascus-based Abdul-Karim Rihawi, head of the Syrian Human Rights League, also said there were casualties in Homs, as did witnesses. But they did not have an exact figure.

Homs, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) from Damascus, has been under siege following reports of a wave of sectarian killings on Saturday and Sunday that left 30 people dead.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Saleh, the activist in Homs, confirmed the death toll was 30 and said they have the names of the victims. But other activists said the toll was lower and blamed security forces for the killings.

The discrepancy points to the confusion surrounding the violence in a country that has prevented any independent media coverage. But it also illuminates the fear among some opposition members that reports of sectarian conflict would discredit their movement internationally at a time when the pro-democracy forces are hoping for greater support from the West.

Human rights groups say more than 1,600 people have been killed in President Bashar Assad's crackdown on a largely peaceful protest movement. But the blames the unrest on gunmen and religious extremists looking to stir up sectarian strife.

After the weekend attacks, opposition figures accused Assad's minority Alawite regime of trying to stir up trouble with the Sunni majority to blunt the growing enthusiasm for the uprising. The protesters have been careful to portray their movement as free of any sectarian overtones.

Sectarian warfare would be the worst-case scenario in Syria, evoking painful memories of the worst days of the Iraq war. The Syrian regime's supporters have exploited those fears by portraying Assad as the only force that can guarantee law and order.

The country is home to more than 1 million refugees from neighboring Iraq, who serve as a clear testament to the dangers of regime collapse and fracture in a religiously divided society. They also see the seemingly intractable sectarian tensions in Lebanon as a cautionary tale.

An offshoot of Shiite Islam, the Alawite sect represents about 11 percent of the population in Syria. The sect's longtime dominance has bred seething resentments, which Assad has worked to tamp down by enforcing a strictly secular identity in Syria.

But now, Assad is relying heavily on his Alawite power base to crush the uprising, particularly amid rumors that Sunni army conscripts have been refusing to fire on civilians.

Homs has been a focal point of the uprising. In April, protesters gathered at the central Clock Square in Homs, bringing mattresses, food and water to the site for an Egypt-style sit-in.

But security forces quickly dispersed the crowd.

Since then, Homs has continued to see intense protests. Some Syrians refer to Homs as "mother of the poor" because the cost of living is lower, a Homs resident said. As in the other uprisings sweeping the Arab world, economic hardship has played a role in mobilizing the protests.

The Assad family has ruled Syria for more than four decades with Assad, and his father, Hafez, before him, leading one of the most authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. The uprising, which kicked off in mid-March, is the most potent threat the Assad family dynasty has ever faced.

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