BEIRUT — Spiraling sectarian violence killed dozens of people Thursday in the troubled Syrian city of Homs, casting into doubt prospects that an Arab League peace plan would succeed in tamping down an escalating conflict between pro- and antigovernment forces.
Residents and activists de-scribed a city descending into war as gunmen on both sides of the divide swarmed into each other's neighborhoods, abducting and shooting civilians and heralding a worrying twist to the nearly eight-month uprising against the rule of President Bashar Assad.
Many of those killed belonged to Assad's minority Alawite sect, which dominates most of the senior positions in the security forces, according to Homs residents and activists.
There were also reports that members of the majority Sunni sect had been shot in retaliatory killings by progovernment gunmen circulating in vehicles in Sunni neighborhoods and opening fire at random on civilians.
In Washington, Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, denounced the killings as evidence of Assad's "continued history of broken promises."
A doctor contacted by telephone at the National Hospital in Homs said more than 70 bodies had been brought to the facility in the previous 24 hours, most killed by gunshot wounds. Many appeared to have been disfigured after they were shot, an indicator of the ferocity of the hatred that has been building since the uprising began in March.
At the same time, Syrian security forces bombarded three key protest flash points in the city, killing at least 16 people, according to activist groups. The assault called into question the government's commitment to the terms of the Arab League plan, under which Syria agreed to withdraw troops from residential neighborhoods.
Homs, with its mixed Christian, Alawite, Sunni and Shiite population, is by no means typical of most towns and cities where antigovernment protests have been held in recent months. In many parts of the country where the Sunni population overwhelmingly dominates, the divide has manifested itself as between overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrators and security forces loyal to the regime.
EGYPTIAN MILITARY'S MOVES RAISE CONCERN: Fear that Egypt's ruling generals are working to perpetuate their hold on power is causing a political furor, threatening a "second revolution" and sending relations between the generals and activists to new lows less than four weeks before a key election.
The outcry was prompted by a proposal from the military-appointed Cabinet to shield the armed forces from any oversight and give the generals a veto over legislation dealing with military affairs. The measure also is designed to curtail the likely influence by Islamist lawmakers over the writing of a new constitution.
The proposal has united both Islamists and liberals — groups that helped engineer the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak — in its condemnation.
Information from Associated Press was used in the report.