Militiamen loyal to President Bashar al-Assad killed 14 members of a Sunni family in the city of Homs Thursday in one of the grizzliest sectarian attacks in the ten-month uprising raging in the Alawite-dominated country, activists and residents said.
Eight children, aged eight months to nine years old were among 14 Bahader family members shot or hacked to death in a building in the mixed Karm al-Zeitoun neighbourhood of Homs, 140-km (88 miles) north of Damascus, they said.
The militiamen, known as 'shabbiha', entered the district after loyalist forces fired heavy mortar rounds on the area, killing another 16 people, residents and activists in the city told Reuters by phone.
YouTube video footage taken by activists, which could not be independently verified, showed the bodies of five children with wounds to the head and neck in a house. The bodies of three women and one man were also shown.
There was no comment from the Syrian authorities, who severely restrict independent media access to the country.
Alawites who had remained in Karm al-Zeitoun mysteriously left four days ago, and the rumour was that they did so on orders by the authorities. Today we know why, said a doctor in the district who did not want to be named.
We also have seventy people wounded. Field hospitals themselves are coming under mortar fire, he said.
Hamza, an activist in Homs said that the attack was pure revenge for shabbiha members being killed by army defectors loosely grouped under the Free Syrian Army.
He said Sunni families were fleeing Karm al-Zeitoun to other parts of the city, and several Sunni neighbourhoods, such as Bab Sbaa, also came under fire.
Tit-for-tat sectarian killings began in Homs four months ago, following armoured military assaults on Sunni areas of the city by forces led by members of Assad's minority Alawite sect.
Mass killings have included Alawites in micro-buses on the way to their villages near Homs and Sunnis stopped at a roadblock while heading to work at a factory. Women from the two sects have been abducted and killed also, activists said.
The killings have raised the prospect of the pro-democracy protest movement against Assad turning into a civil war, as his opponents take up arms and fight back against loyalist forces cracking down on demonstrators.
The Alawite community, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, has dominated the political system and the security apparatus in Syria, a mostly Sunni country of 20 million people, for the last five decades.
Unlike most Syrian cities, Homs has a large proportion of Alawites who moved to the city to take up jobs in the public sector and the security apparatus as Assad's father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, shored up his power base by promoting members of his own community.
But thousands of Alawites, residents say, have left Homs for their home villages in the Alawite Mountains northwest of Homs following a spike in sectarian killings and kidnappings in the city of one million. Thousands of Sunni families have also left for other parts of Syria, and for Lebanon and Jordan.
The Revolution Council of Homs Province said in a statement that the attack on Karm al-Zeitoun is a new tactic based on annihilating civilians to break the will the people.
(Editing by Louise Ireland)