BEIRUT, Lebanon — Dozens of bodies were dumped in the streets of a Syrian city at the heart of the country's nearly 9-month-old uprising, a grim sign that sectarian bloodshed is escalating as the country descends further toward civil war.
Up to 50 people were killed in Homs on Monday, but details about what happened in Syria's third-largest city only came to light Tuesday with reports of retaliatory attacks pitting members of the Alawite sect against Sunnis.
The sectarian violence is a dire development in Syria, and one that opposition members say plays into the regime's hands. Since the uprising began, President Bashar Assad has portrayed himself as the lone force who can ward off the radicalism and sectarianism that have bedeviled neighbors in Iraq and Lebanon.
Opposition figures have accused Assad's minority Alawite regime of trying to stir up trouble with the Sunni majority to blunt enthusiasm for the uprising.
"It was an insane escalation," activist Mohamed Saleh told the Associated Press. "There were kidnappings and killings in a mad way."
Thirty-four of the dead were shot execution-style, their bodies dumped in a public square, according to Saleh and others who monitor the violence, including the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Saleh said all were from the predominantly Sunni district of Jabb al-Jandali. He said Alawite gunmen had raided the district after an Alawite was found dead.
A Homs government official confirmed to the AP only that 43 bodies were found Monday. The reports could not be independently confirmed.
With 4,000 people dead across Syria in the uprising, the conflict is no longer just a matter of government forces firing on peaceful protesters looking to topple Assad. The government also has been facing strong resistance from army defectors who have taken refuge in Homs, a city of 800,000 people.
Assad says extremists pushing a foreign agenda to destabilize Syria are behind the unrest, not true reform-seekers.