Deaths mount, Syria opposition warns of 'massacre'
Syrians took to the streets of Homs where at least nine people were killed on Friday, activists said, as the opposition warned of the danger of a "massacre" by regime forces ringing the protest hub.
Four children were among 14 people killed when security forces and pro-regime militias opened fire in several cities across the country after the main weekly Muslim prayers, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
Pro-democracy activists had called on citizens to take to the streets in support of a "dignity strike... which will lead to the sudden death of this tyrant regime."
Ahead of the demonstrations, the opposition Syrian National Council warned of a bloody final assault on Homs using the pretext of what the regime had called a "terrorist" attack on an oil pipeline.
"The regime (is) paving the way to commit a massacre in order to extinguish the revolution in Homs," said the SNC, a principle umbrella group drawing together Assad's opponents.
Homs, an important central junction city of 1.6 million residents mainly divided along confessional lines, is a tinderbox of sectarian tensions that the SNC said the regime was trying to exploit.
"The regime has tried hard to ignite the sectarian conflict using many dirty methods, which have included bombing and burning mosques, torturing and killing young men, and kidnapping women and children," said the SNC.
"The regime also took a significant step... in burning oil pipelines in the neighbourhood of Baba Amr to blame what the regime calls 'armed gangs'; in an attempt to crush the peaceful uprising on the pretext of a war on terrorism."
Witnesses on the ground in Homs, already besieged for months, have reported a buildup of troops and pro-regime "Shabiha" militiamen in armoured vehicles who have set up more than 60 checkpoints, said the opposition group.
"These are all signs of a security crackdown operation that may reach the level of a total invasion of the city.
"We warn of the consequences of committing such a crime that could result in a massive number of casualties," said the SNC, calling for international organisation to take action.
The Assad regime's crackdown on dissent since mid-March has hit Homs particularly hard and activists say a great number of defecting soldiers have set up camp there to protect the protest movement.
An explosion on Thursday tore apart a pipeline taking crude to an oil refinery in Homs from eastern Syria, in an attack the regime blamed on "armed terrorist gangs."
But the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), which organises the protests, accused Assad's government of deliberately destroying the pipeline which serves a region seen as staunchly opposed to his rule.
The Syrian Observatory said at least 10 civilians were killed on Friday in and around Homs, two in Daraa, cradle of anti-regime protests, one civilian in Hama and another in Douma near Damascus.
The regime's crackdown on dissent has killed a total of more than 4,000 people in Syria since mid-March, according to UN figures.
UN human rights chief Navi Pillay was due to address the Syria crisis on Friday and expected to brief the UN Security Council next week at the request of France, Britain and German, diplomats said.
The Arab League, meanwhile, is pushing for Syria to allow in observers or face more sanctions, but the regime has taken a defiant stance this week, with Assad himself denying responsibility for violence by his forces.
Turkey urged Assad on Friday to punish the "murderers" of anti-regime protesters and accept observers.
On top of international sanctions already in place against Damascus over its crackdown on dissent, Switzerland added 18 senior Syrian military and interior ministry officials to a travel ban list on Friday.
© 2011 AFP