BEIRUT They call it the "Sunni market" - a comic term with a dark undertone.
As rockets and gunfire crackle in the central city of Homs, hardline loyalists from President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite sect steal goods from the shattered neighbourhoods of Sunni Muslims, the majority population that led the revolt against him.
Grocery stores and thrift shops become loot markets.
"Maybe I'll nab a bargain," says a 50-year-old woman wandering through a supermarket that now trades in looted furniture. "I found a really nice kitchen table set made of gorgeous old wood. But he wants $200 dollars for it!"
Furniture usually goes for around $50 or less. Clothes and shoes are $5 to $20. Everything is open to negotiation.
The woman haggles with the shopkeeper. "These are the spoils of war. It's our right to take them," she says.
Even shopping now has a sectarian dimension in Homs, heart of the 15-month-old revolt against Assad, where killings and kidnappings based on religion became common.
Some in the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam and the dominant force in the Syrian elite, say they are only defending themselves. They say Sunnis want to crush them, not establish a democracy as activists say.
"This isn't stealing, it is our right. Those people support terrorism and we have to finish them off," says Ayman, a 25-year-old youth wearing pointed black shoes and a studded belt.
Outside the shop, he helps young men with slicked back hair and tight jeans unload television sets from vans.
After security forces pound rebel areas in Homs and Sunni residents flee, pro-Assad Alawite gangs called "shabbiha" sweep in behind them to salvage goods from the rubble.
"The other day our boss sent us to a place near the cultural centre. It was an electronics store - TVs, fridges, stuff like that," said Ayman.
"We worked it for three hours, taking stuff and putting it in storage. We got 10,000 lira ($147), plus a TV. So why not?"
Not everyone is impressed, says Mahmoud, an old vegetable vendor outside the loot store, his wrinkled face set in a frown.
"They are the dregs of society. Now, Alawites will be seen as thieves," he said.
But with the conflict ravaging Syria's economy, some Alawite vendors say they are happy to find a way to scrounge some cash.
"Last week a businessman came from (the port of) Tartous and bought 3 million lira of stolen goods, happy for the deal," said furniture dealer Hasan. "At the end of the day, I'm a businessman, and people are buying."
(This story is based on the observations of a visitor to Syria, known to Reuters. His identity has been withheld for safety reasons)
(Writing by Erika Solomon; editing by Ralph Boulton)
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