A wave of sectarian killings was threatening to lead to an outright military assault last night as a 72-hour deadline passed for the return of nine civilians being held captive by a gang in Homs, a flashpoint city in central Syria.
With the city surrounded by tanks and troops, activists said they were worried the military would storm neighbourhoods once the three-day deadline expired.
Wissam Tarif, from the human-rights organisation Avaaz, said "the troops around Homs are more than enough to take the city". But he said the government's plans were still unclear. The deadline also related to a demand that civilians hand over soldiers who had defected, and surrender their weapons.
Last night it was reported that a gas pipeline in the nearby town of Rastan had exploded in what appeared to be the result of fighting in the area. It came as the UN said more than 5,000 Syrians had been killed since protests began in March.
Homs has been plagued by sectarian violence in recent months. Nearly 180 people have died, say Avaaz. Many have been tortured and mutilated.
"My neighbour, who was a pilot in the army, was shot dead on his doorstep by a gang of five Sunni men," said a retired army officer. The man, a member of the Shia Alawite sect from which the regime draws much of its top military and intelligence personnel, said people in Homs were now living in a state of paranoia. "Everybody avoids going through neighbourhoods that belong to the other side," he said.
The violence has pitted the city's Alawite community, which accounts for about 13 per cent of Syria's population, against Sunni Muslims, the country's biggest religious group that makes up about 75 per cent of the population.
In spite of continuing violence, the Baathist regime yesterday went ahead with nationwide municipal elections.