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Activists say pro-government gunmen killed at least 16 civilians in central Syrian city
BEIRUT (AP) ' Syrian activists said Monday that pro-government gunmen killed at least 16 people, including some children, in a rebel stronghold recaptured by the government, fueling concerns the government is carrying out reprisals in territory it has taken back.
State media in Damascus, which often ignores activists' claims, confirmed killings in Homs but blamed "armed terrorists," as it frequently calls those behind the yearlong uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime.
At the United Nations, the U.S. and Russia clashed after Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealed to the divided Security Council to speak with one voice and help Syria "pull back from the brink of a deeper catastrophe."
Washington and Moscow both called for an end to the bloody conflict ' but on different terms, leaving prospects for U.N. action in doubt.
The reports of killings in the battered city of Homs added to concerns that the hundreds of civilian deaths caused by the fighting would be compounded by reprisals against opposition supporters in recaptured towns and neighborhoods.
Fresh from stamping out rebel centers of resistance in Homs, government forces are pressing on with new offensives in other parts of central and northern Syria.
The main Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Council, called for "immediate" Arab and international military intervention, including setting up safe corridors for humanitarian aid and a no-fly zone to protect civilians.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 16 people were killed Sunday night in Homs, while the Local Coordination Committees said 45 were killed. Both groups said children were among the dead.
They accused "shabiha," gunmen akin to a militia that basically do the government's bidding and who have played a major role in trying to crush the year-old uprising, of carrying out the killing.
Homs is the Syrian city hardest hit by violence since the uprising began in March last year. Several Homs neighborhoods, including Karm el-Zeytoun, where Sunday's deaths occurred, were controlled by rebels and retaken by government forces earlier this month.
The Observatory said after the killings, many people fled Karm el-Zeytoun and other nearby neighborhoods, fearing pro-government gunmen might carry out more reprisals.
Pictures posted online by activists showed the bodies of five children who were disfigured after being apparently hit with sharp objects. At least six dead adults were shown covered with sheets.
An amateur video posted online showed men wrapping the bodies of the dead with white cloth, in accordance with Muslim tradition, before burial.
"This is what they do to us, the Sunnis. The Sunnis are being wiped out. They are the ones who are dying at the hands of Iran and the Shiites," shouted a man in the background. Shiite Iran is one of the Assad regime's few remaining allies. The authenticity of the videos could not be independently confirmed.
Another video aired on state-run Syrian TV showed bodies in three different places in Karm el-Zeytoun.
The first was of a family killed inside their home, showing a dead man on what appeared to be a couch with children next to him. The other was of three handcuffed men on a street, while the third was in a building under construction, where five bodies were lying on the ground.
It was not clear if the family shown on state TV was the same one that activists posted in their picture. The TV did not say when the killing occurred or how many people died.
The Syrian government accused armed groups in Homs of kidnapping people, then killing and disfiguring them in order to bring international condemnation onto the regime.
Assad's government attributes the uprising to armed groups and terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy.
Activists put the blame for the killing on the government. The Observatory called on the United Nations to investigate the deaths.
All this is adding pressure on U.N. Security Council members, who are meeting to decide what to do next to stop the violence. A peacemaking mission by U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan faltered, with both government and opposition rejecting talks.
A private meeting later Monday between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was likely to focus on the two countries' serious differences over how to address the violence in Syria. The U.N. estimates over 7,500 people have died since the uprising began.
The two clashed at the U.N. ahead of the meeting.
Clinton rejected any equivalence between rebel actions and the "premeditated murders" carried by Assad's "military machine." Lavrov said Syrian authorities "bear a huge share of responsibility," but he insisted opposition fighters and extremists, including al-Qaida, are also committing violent acts.
Annan, speaking Monday in Turkey, urged the world to send a clear message to Damascus in the face of "grave and appalling reports of atrocities."
Also Monday, the Syrian news agency reported that an "armed terrorist group" blew up a pipeline that transports diesel fuel from the central province of Homs to the nearby region of Hama.
There have been several fires and explosions cutting oil and gas pipelines since the uprising began. Damascus blames them on armed groups, but the opposition says they are caused by government shelling.