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Overnight Violence Grips Syrian City - NY Times article

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BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian security forces killed at least three antigovernment protesters in the central city of Homs overnight, residents and activists there said on Tuesday.

Residents said that there was heavy shooting on Monday night in several neighborhoods in and around the city, Syria’s second-largest, and that helicopters were hovering over the area. Electricity was cut in most neighborhoods and there were reports of house-to-house raids and dozens of arrests. Residents said that at least two people were wounded, including a 10-year old child, in the nearby village of Talbeesah.

The killings in Homs, a city 100 miles from Damascus that has emerged as a nexus of the uprising, followed a wave of sectarian bloodshed over the weekend in which six people died. Three of the victims were from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Islam, and their corpses were mutilated and thrown in a deserted area outside the city.

The sectarian violence signaled a dangerous turn in the four-month-old antigovernment uprising as tensions seemed to mount among segments of Syria’s religiously mixed society. Although most Syrians are Sunni Muslims, President Bashar al-Assad and his ruling clan belong to the minority Alawite sect.

Residents and pro-democracy activists said the government had been enlisting thousands of plainclothes security men, known as shabiha, since March to help quell dissent. Most of the shabiha are Alawites, and resentment against them runs high: many people accuse them of killing thousands of unarmed civilians.

On Sunday, residents of Homs discovered the bodies of three Alawites mutilated and dumped in a deserted area, according to Omar Idlibi of the Local Coordination Committees, a group that helps organize and document protests. All three were armed government loyalists, he said.

News of the deaths enraged other Alawites, who went on a rampage, according to residents and activists. Three people were killed, including a mother of three, and scores of shops owned by Sunnis were burned and vandalized, Mr. Idlibi said.

“The reaction was so violent and quick that we suspect the regime had a hand in the killings,” Mr. Idlibi said.

Opposition figures have accused the government of fomenting sectarian tensions in order to present itself as the only authority that can maintain stability and protect minorities, which include religious groups like Shiites, Christians and Druze and ethnic groups like Kurds and Circassians. Many Syrians have voiced fears that the uprising could ignite sectarian warfare.

“It’s like a time bomb,” said a protest organizer. “Sectarianism is the regime’s wild card.”