Middle East

Syria crisis: Homs at centre of fresh massacre, activists say

Bombed out neighbourhood of Homs - 5 March
Image caption Homs has suffered widespread devastation after weeks of bombardment

Dozens of people have been killed in a suburb of Syria's battle-scarred city of Homs, reports say, in what activists are describing as a "new massacre".

Forty-four of those killed came from just a handful of families, the Local Co-Ordination Committees (LCC) said.

The reported killings come a day after the UN's humanitarian chief visited Homs, saying parts had been devastated.

Meanwhile a Syrian deputy oil minister posted a message on YouTube saying he had defected to the rebels.

Abdo Hussameddin is the highest level political figure to abandon the government of President Bashar al-Assad since the uprising erupted a year ago.

'Reprisal killings'

According to the LCC, the latest concentration of killings by security forces happened in the Jobar district of Homs. The group said 20 of the dead belonged to a single family, and 16 to another.

It said the deaths were reprisal killings, coming days after security forces retook Homs from rebels, having pounded the city for weeks.

The claims cannot be verified as international media inside Syria are heavily restricted.

After visiting Homs, one of the first cities to join the uprising last March, the UN humanitarian chief Baroness Valerie Amos said the bombed-out Baba Amr district felt like it had been closed down.

"The devastation there is significant, that part of Homs is completely destroyed and I am concerned to know what has happened to the people who live in that part of the city," Baroness Amos told Reuters news agency.

Activists said troops committed massacres after they went in to the district, but Damascus blamed the rebels for many deaths.

The BBC's Jim Muir in neighbouring Lebanon says activist groups continue to report the summary execution of men from Baba Amr, the butchering of entire families, and the systematic mass rape of women.

Our correspondent says opposition groups are urging Baroness Amos to go back and delve deeper.

The UN says more than 7,500 people have died as a result of the violence in Syria over the past 12 months.

'Brutal campaign'

In a YouTube message posted late on Wednesday, Mr Hussameddin, one of two deputy oil ministers, accused the government of "barbarism".

He read out a four-minute denunciation of the regime he said he had served for the past 33 years.

"I am joining the revolution of the people who reject injustice and the brutal campaign of the regime," he said.

"I tell the regime, which claims to own the country, you have nothing but the footprint of the tank driven by your barbarism to kill innocent people."

He said he was stepping aside although he knew that his house would be burnt and his family persecuted by the regime.

The Syrian government has not publicly commented on Mr Hussameddin's announcement.

Observers say public defections have been rare among civilian officials of the Syrian state, which is controlled by Mr Assad's minority Alawite sect.

However, there have been high-profile defections from the military, including Gen Mustapha al-Sheikh who fled to Turkey earlier this year. Also thousands of chiefly Sunni soldiers and conscripts are reported to have deserted since the start of the uprising.

A spokeswoman from the opposition National Transitional Council of Syria said she believed many more cabinet members and their deputies were prepared to defect.

'No to force'

In further diplomatic efforts to halt the violence, special envoy Kofi Annan is due to meet representatives of both sides in Damascus at the weekend.

Speaking after talks in Cairo on Thursday, Mr Annan, joint envoy for the UN and Arab League, rejected military intervention in Syria.

"I hope no-one is thinking very seriously of using force in this situation. I believe further militarisation will make the situation worse," he said after meeting Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi.

Separately, Beijing announced on Thursday that its envoy had talks in Syria this week with representatives of the government and the opposition.

China's foreign ministry said envoy Li Huaxin met Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and his deputy during a two-day visit.

Observers say Mr Li's visit is Beijing's latest attempt to counter charges by Western and Arab leaders that by vetoing two previous UN resolutions, China and Russia have aided the growing violence by Syrian government forces.

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