Syrian security forces shot dead at least 9 villagers they had stopped at a roadblock northwest of the city of Homs, local activists said on Wednesday.
A YouTube video distributed by activists opposed to President Bashar al-Assad purportedly showed several bodies, gagged and with their hands tied behind their backs, near the village of Kfar Laha in the Houla region, a hotbed of pro-democracy protests and a nascent armed insurgency against Assad.
Their killing follows reports by an activist in Homs, and on pro-Assad social network pages, that nine members of Assad's minority Alawite sect had been dragged from a bus and killed by gunmen near Homs on Tuesday.
The nine people killed on Wednesday were all Sunni Muslims, who form the majority of Syria's population.
They were workers at a small building blocks factory. The exact time of their death is not known, but it appears it was this morning, Ahmad Fouad, an activist in Homs, 140 km (85 miles) north of Damascus, said by phone.
The United Nations says more than 3,000 people have been killed in Assad's crackdown on an uprising which erupted in March against his rule, inspired by revolutions which have toppled three Arab leaders this year.
Authorities blame militants who they say are armed and financed from abroad, saying they have killed 1,100 members of the security forces. Syria has barred most foreign media, making it hard to verify accounts from activists and officials.
Omar Idlibi, a prominent activist in exile in Beirut, said the circumstances of the bus incident were not clear but that the shooting had occurred near a main army roadblock and that the nine killed included at least one Sunni and two Christians.
Members of Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Islam, dominate the state, the military, key sectors of the economy and the security apparatus, which now underpins Assad's power base, as he faces a seven-month uprising against his repressive rule.
In the latest of a series of state-organised rallies designed to show Assad enjoys popular support nationwide, state television showed tens of thousands of people rallying in Syria's eastern city of Raqqa on Wednesday.
Huge national flags were draped from buildings and people waved posters of Assad and national flags, chanting God, Syria, Bashar -- that's all.
Assad, who has used tanks and troops to crush protests across the country, has repeatedly said he is facing a foreign conspiracy to sow sectarian strife and that he was using legitimate force to put down the unrest.
His opponents say the political system has become more sectarian and family-based under his 11-year rule.
(Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman and Dominic Evans in Beirut; Editing by Louise Ireland)