BEIRUT, (Reuters) – Shadowy death squads are operating in Syria’s flashpoint city of Homs, according to accounts from anti-government activists in the country, from which foreign reporters are officially banned.
In the past two days, more people were killed in mysterious circumstances than by the state security forces firing in the streets, activists and residents say. Yet very little is known for certain about who is behind such killings, which appear to have targeted government supporters, as well as opponents.
Along with a rise in ambushes and bomb attacks by military defectors who have set up a “Free Syrian Army”, the emergence of irregular militias has complicated what began in March as a popular revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, inspired by unarmed demonstrators who led Arab Spring protests elsewhere.
U.N. officials say Syria is close to “civil war”. There are also fears that sectarian divisions could deepen the conflict, as happened in recent years in neighbouring Iraq.
Available reports offer only a partial explanation of who stood behind the kidnapping and murder of over 60 Syrians whose bodies were dumped on Monday in two separate places in Homs.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights quoted a witness in Homs as saying on Monday he saw the bodies of 34 people “who were originally kidnapped earlier today by Shabiha from the neighbourhood uprising against the regime”.
Shabiha is a popular name for state-backed paramilitaries drawn from Assad’s minority Alawite sect, who are outnumbered about eight to one by Syria’s Sunni Muslim people.
Since the early months of the uprising, the Shabiha have been accused of abductions, assassinations and drive-by shootings in a number of Syria’s most divided cities and towns.