BEIRUT (Reuters) - At least 30 people were killed at the weekend in clashes between residents in Homs, a rights group said, in the first factional fighting since protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad erupted in March.
Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said on Monday that clashes between pro- and anti-Assad residents started on Saturday after the bodies of kidnapped Assad supporters were returned to their relatives dismembered.
Homs has been a focal point of the uprising since the military stormed it two months ago to try to crush street protests calling for Assad to quit after 11 years in power.
The central city is a microcosm of Syria’s religious schism with a Sunni Muslim majority living alongside minority groups, including Christians and Alawite Muslims, Assad’s own sect.
“At least 30 civilians were killed ... they fell after civil fighting between pro- and anti-regime (residents) started on Saturday,” the Observatory said in statement.
“These clashes are a dangerous development that undermines the revolution and serves the interests of its enemies who want to turn it into a civil war,” he said.
Mohamad Saleh, an activist and a resident of Homs, said the there was no more fighting on Monday but residents were tense.
He said a group of Alawite men, including four policemen, went missing on Thursday. The bodies of four of them were found on Saturday with their eyes gouged out. Six more were found on Sunday.
“Immediately some people from their neighbourhood (in the Alawite area) went to the street and torched, robbed and destroyed at least 12 shops belonging to Sunnis,” he told Reuters by telephone.
“The security forces were watching and did not do anything. I saw that. Then shooting started and we did not know where it was coming from and people started dying from both sides.”
Saleh said that residents of Homs blame Sunni and Alawite “thugs” for the violence. “This is very dangerous, we are trying to calm things down. Nobody in Homs accepts this, the people do not want these (sectarian) divisions,” he said.
The anti-Assad protests started in Syria’s poorer Sunni rural areas, but quickly spread to cities which have more of a sectarian mix. At least 1,400 civilians have been killed since the uprising began, human rights organisations say.
Syrian authorities blame armed groups with Islamist links for the violence and say at least 500 policemen and soldiers have been killed since March.
Editing by Louise Ireland