A surge in violence in the restive Syrian city of Homs has killed up to 50 people in the past 24 hours, leaving dozens of bodies in the streets, activists said today.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights quoted witnesses as saying 34 bodies were dumped in the streets of Homs last night. Homs-based activist Mohammed Saleh said there was a spate of kidnappings and killings in the city earlier yesterday.
Homs and other areas have seen an increasing number of tit-for-tat attacks pitting majority Sunnis against members of President Bashar Assad's minority Alawite sect, fearsome violence that evokes the seething conflicts that have bedeviled neighboring Iraq and Lebanon.
"It was an insane escalation," Saleh told The Associated Press by telephone from Homs after Monday's violence. "There were kidnappings and killings in a mad way. People are afraid to go out of their homes."
The activists' reports could not be independently confirmed. Syria has banned most foreign journalists and prevents the work of independent media.
Also today, Syria said it blocked 35 "armed terrorists" from entering the country after a clash along the border with Turkey. The state-run news service said several of the gunmen were wounded and the group fled back into Turkish territory.
The head of a growing group of Syrian army defectors is based in Turkey. The group is believed to be smuggling weapons and fighters into the country through the border.
For nearly nine months, the Syrian government has been trying to crush an uprising against President Assad. But there are growing signs of an armed insurgency and mounting sectarian tensions that could push the country toward civil war.
Homs has emerged as the epicentre of the uprising, and the government has laid siege to the city for months.
The United States, meanwhile, said it was sending its ambassador back to Syria in part to serve as a witness to the violence there and to meet with opposition figures. A senior Obama administration official said Ambassador Robert Ford was due to return today. He had been recalled on October 22 amid the worsening violence.
Yesterday, Syria said it would agree to allow Arab League observers into the country as part of a plan to end the bloodshed, but placed a number of conditions, including the cancellation of deeply embarrassing economic sanctions by the 22-member organisation.
Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby swiftly rebuffed Damascus' demands, and the Syrian opposition accused Assad's regime of wasting time and trying to trick Arab leaders into reversing punitive measures against Damascus.
"Any announcements made by the Syrian regime while the military crackdown continues has for us zero credibility," said Bassma Kodmani, a spokeswoman for the Syrian National Council, an opposition umbrella group.
Syria has already failed to meet several Arab League ultimatums to end the crackdown, which the UN says has killed more than 4,000 people since the uprising against Assad erupted in March.
Damascus' failure to meet a November 25 deadline to allow in observers drew Arab League sanctions, including a ban on dealings with the country's central bank and a freeze on government assets. The bloc also imposed a travel ban on 19 Syrian officials, including Assad's younger brother Maher, who is believed to be in command of much of the crackdown, as well as Cabinet ministers, intelligence chiefs and security officers.
The sanctions dealt a big blow to a regime that sees itself as a powerhouse of Arab nationalism.
Combined with sanctions from the United States, the European Union and Turkey, the Arab League's penalties are expected to inflict significant damage on Syria's economy and may undercut the regime's authority.
Damascus remains defiant, however, and has shown few signs of easing its crackdown.