Dozens of civilians were killed in cold blood in the Syrian city of Homs, opposition activists and Syrian state media said today, although they disputed responsibility for what both sides called a massacre.
The carnage in Homs, as well as a military assault on the northwestern city of Idlib, coincided with a weekend peace mission by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, who left Damascus yesterday without agreement on a truce or humanitarian access.
"The terrorist armed groups have kidnapped scores of civilians in the city of Homs, central Syria, killed, and mutilated their corpses and filmed them to be shown by media outlets," state news agency SANA said on its website.
Footage posted by opposition activists on YouTube showed men, women and children lying dead in a blood-drenched room.
The Local Coordination Committees of Syria, a grassroots opposition network, said at least 45 women and children had been stabbed and burned in the Homs district of Karm al-Zeitoun.
It said another seven people were slain in the city's Jobar district, which adjoins the former rebel bastion of Baba Amr.
Activists contacted in Homs accused Alawite "shabbiha" militia loyal to President Bashar al-Assad of carrying out the killings under the protection of regular Syrian military forces.
Waleed Fares, an activist in Homs's Khalidiyah district, which is about one km from Karm al-Zeitoun, said that 30 to 40 tanks had arrived in Karm al-Zeitoun last night.
"We know now that four families have been killed by shabbiha. We have 21 names and we are trying to confirm the names of the rest," he told Reuters via Skype, adding that the victims were all from Syria's Sunni Muslim majority.
"It's quiet now but I have been hearing gunfire all night."
Fares said most of the killings occurred in Karm al-Zeitoun, but some took place in other districts. "The Free Syrian army helped move the bodies to one place. Otherwise the regime forces would have hidden the evidence," he said.
Syrian government restrictions on the media have made it hard to assess conflicting reports by the authorities and their opponents since an uprising against Assad began a year ago.
SANA said the Homs killings "perpetrated by the armed terrorist groups and aired by (satellite TV channels) Al Jazeera and Arabiya ... coincide with today's UN Security Council session to call for foreign interference in Syria".
In the southern city of Deraa, scene of sporadic street fighting between Free Syrian Army rebels and Assad's troops, a car bomb killed a schoolgirl and wounded 25 others at a girls' school. An opposition activist said members of the school had taken part in anti-Assad demonstrations.