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Violence in Syria leads to fear of civil war

BEIRUT — Syrians snatched from their homes turn up dead, often mutilated. Soldiers gun down former comrades who defected to the opposition. A human rights group reports that electric shocks and hot iron rods are used to torture detainees.

November is shaping up to be the bloodiest month yet in Syria's 8-month-old uprising. More than 250 Syrian civilians have been killed in the past 11 days as the regime besieges the renegade city of Homs and the conflict takes a dangerous turn, stoking fear of civil war.

Mass protests after Friday prayers, followed by swift and deadly crackdowns by security forces, have become a weekly cycle. On Friday, Syrian security forces fired on protesters and conducted sweeping raids that killed at least 16 people in Homs and elsewhere, activists said.

The United Nations estimates that some 3,500 people have been killed in the crackdown since mid-March, when the uprising began. The latest figures would push that number closer to 4,000.

The bloodshed has spiked dramatically in recent weeks amid signs that more protesters are taking up arms to protect themselves, changing the face of what had been a largely peaceful movement. Many fear that the change plays directly into the hands of the regime by giving the military a pretext to crack down with increasing force.

There also have been reports of intense battles between soldiers and army defectors, setting the stage for even more bloodshed. Although the crackdown has led to broad international isolation, President Bashar Assad appears to have a firm grip on power.

The most serious violence has been in Homs, the epicenter of the uprising.

"We have seen urban warfare in some areas where army defections occurred," said Hozan Ibrahim, a spokesman for the Local Coordination Committees, an activist coalition. "The soldiers are having a hard time advancing. They often come under attack from the defectors, and this explains why they are shooting more."

He said the regime is more often using tanks, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades because the soldiers are fighting army defectors as well as the unarmed protesters.

Syria has largely sealed off the country from foreign journalists and prevented independent reporting, making it hard to confirm events on the ground. In a desperate move, the regime has begun planting land mines along parts of its border with Lebanon.

An Associated Press journalist saw Syrian soldiers planting more mines Friday along the border with Lebanon. Syria says the mines are aimed at stopping weapons smuggling into the country during the uprising.

Human Rights Watch said in a 63-page report released Friday that Syrian forces have tortured and killed civilians in Homs in an assault that indicates crimes against humanity. The rights group said former detainees reported torture, including security forces' use of heated metal rods and electric shocks.

The Arab League will convene an emergency session on Syria today after chiding Damascus for its failure to end the bloodshed. Syria agreed last week to a peace plan brokered by the 22-nation league, but the violence only accelerated.

Violence in Syria leads to fear of civil war 11/11/11 [Last modified: Friday, November 11, 2011 11:23pm]

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