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In Restive Syrian City, Signs Of Sectarian Violence

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In Restive Syrian City, Signs Of Sectarian Violence

Middle East

In Restive Syrian City, Signs Of Sectarian Violence

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

For the fifth day in a row, government forces in Syria have been bombarding the city of Homs. Hundreds of people have died from tank, mortar and rocket fire. And activists say that yesterday, three families, including women and children, were killed at close range. Human rights groups say killings like these are evidence that some people's worse fears are coming true. The conflict is becoming sectarian. NPR's Kelly McEvers has the story.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Activists in Homs say the attack on the families occurred in the Al Sabeel neighborhood. Al Sabeel is a mixed area of Sunnis and Alawites.

Sunni Muslims are the majority in Syria, but the ruling family are Alawites. They identify themselves as Shiite Muslims. Activists say pro-government troops shelled Al Sabeel neighborhood yesterday, then pro-government thugs went to the houses of three Sunni families. They say at least one family was stabbed to death.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: This macabre video shows the body of what activists say is the head of that family with large open wounds that look like slices in his face and arms. In all, activists say 19 people were killed in Al Sabeel.

Human rights workers who document such cases say attacks like these are becoming increasingly common. Pro-government Alawites are killing anti-government Sunnis. And in turn, Sunnis are killing Alawites.

It's difficult to verify the details in many cases because access to Syria is so limited. So we spent several days tracking down activists and witnesses by phone and Skype to detail another recent spate of killings. It was a Thursday, nearly two weeks ago.

KARAM: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Government troops began shelling the neighborhood of Karm al Zeitoun, which means field of olives. That neighborhood is also a mix of Sunnis and Alawites.

KARAM: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: This witness, who goes by the name Karam, says when the shelling stopped, the Alawite thugs moved in. Karam says the thugs left Alawite families alone but told Sunni families they had until noon to leave the neighborhood. More than 100 families made it out, Karam says. The ones who didn't were killed, stabbed or shot to death. Once the thugs had gone, Karam and other activists entered one family's house.

KARAM: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: The smell of blood was so strong, Karam says, you know, like the smell of a slaughtered animal. The children were scattered around the floor. The women were crumpled in a corner. There were 12 bodies in that house. Activists later learned that another family had been killed that day in the same mixed neighborhood. This time, it was a family of six.

ADNAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: This man is a nephew of one of the victims. He called his uncle the morning of the killing.

ADNAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: I told him to leave the neighborhood, says the nephew, Adnan. I even offered to help. But he told me there were tanks in the street and his family was trapped. Days later, activists discovered the bodies of Adnan's uncle, his uncle's wife, and their four children. Activists tried to retrieve the bodies, but they were stopped at a checkpoint and taken to jail. Government troops took the bodies to a government hospital.

ADNAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Adnan went to pick up the bodies a few days later. He says he was forced to sign a document saying the family had been killed by terrorists. We ask Adnan if the killing of his relatives will force him to take revenge.

ADNAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: The government is trying to stir up sectarian hatred, he says. But we won't let them do it. Still, Adnan says his family has to have some recourse. He says the only solution is to take up arms against government troops and pro-government thugs. That means taking up arms against Alawites.

Human rights workers say the good news is that these incidents are still isolated to the city of Homs. The bad news is that they're starting to look like ethnic cleansing. What's more, they say both sides use the incidents for their own propaganda.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: This report on a pro-government TV channel shows Alawites saying their homes were attacked by terrorists, a term most Syrians would understand to mean Sunnis.

One human rights worker told us it doesn't even matter if the facts of these reports are true. All it takes is the perception of sectarian killing to spark the fire of revenge. Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Beirut.

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