Bodies, gunfire as Homs becomes war zone

BEIRUT Sun Dec 11, 2011 11:48pm IST

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - The dead can lie uncollected in Homs until the shooting dies down or darkness screens their recovery. In daytime, sniper fire and bursts from heavy machineguns can make it too dangerous to retrieve the corpses of people shot on the open street.

Accounts from people who have witnessed the scene in recent days, some having been wounded and escaped abroad, say the shooting is heavy and often indiscriminate. Together with video distributed by opposition activists, it suggests that some parts of the city of over a million people now resemble a war zone.

Homs has become the centre of resistance to months of repression by the army and security forces of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. Assad insists there is no shoot-to-kill policy.

Mohammed, 20, is an army conscript who defected. He was shot while fighting in Homs a week or so ago and carried to safety. Now in Lebanon, he is recovering from multiple bullet wounds.

"I was lying on the ground for hours with my friends. Five of them were dead. I eventually passed out and didn't wake up until much later that night when the gunfire stopped. Our friends could come retrieve our bodies," said Mohammed, who spoke on condition his family name was not used.

"The bodies can lie in the roads for hours until the shooting stops long enough to go out on the street."

The United Nations says at least 4,000 people have been killed in Syria since March. The government says over 1,000 from its security services have been killed.

They are the targets, it says, of "armed terrorist gangs" taking money, orders and weapons from abroad to destabilise Syria, stirring up revolt as part of a foreign conspiracy.

Tayfun Sari, a 38-year-old Turkish truck driver, arrived from Syria at the Turkish border last week looking like he had not slept in days. He described a scene of chaos and fear.

"If anyone wants to end his life or kill himself he should go to Syria," Sari said. "They are shooting civilians."

"I saw 5 soldiers dead on the road after Homs to Turkey and nobody was doing anything for them. They were lying on the road.

"I saw military tanks on the road between Homs and Hama. In Homs civilians were cutting off the road with burning tyres and the military was opening fire on protesters.

"There were many bullet casings on the road and some trucks had flat tyres. I was caught in crossfire but luckily my truck was not hit. I saw a Syrian military vehicle on fire and a house on fire," Sari said.

BODY RETRIEVAL

Some of the videos posted daily on the Internet from Syria do not spare the viewer, displaying terrible wounds and bloody corpses in images not fit for general broadcast.

The provenance of these short film segments cannot be independently verified by Reuters. Most Western media are currently barred from Syria. Shaky images and telephone accounts from activists provide almost the only window onto Syria's reality, outside of Syrian state broadcasts and newspapers, which present a quite different picture.

From districts of Homs where residents are defying orders to stop protesting, videos show camouflaged bunkers, armoured fighting vehicles, riddled and burnt-out cars, bullet-raked shopfronts and people crouching to dart across empty streets.

The video shows how defiance persists. Flash demonstrations by hundreds form in narrow streets, chanting and waving the old Syrian flag. In images over the past week, they gather, shout slogans against Assad, and scatter when shooting starts.

President Assad, whose 11 years in power have continued a family rule established by his father in 1970, denies that the army or police have deliberately used lethal forces against peaceful demonstrators: "We don't kill our people," he said on Dec 7. "There was no command to kill or be brutal."

According to some activists the number of dead since March is now well over 4,000. One site lists 4,330 by name.

With up to a quarter of the victims coming from the security forces, military funerals held almost daily feature honour guards and laurel wreaths for "martyrs killed by terrorists".

Widely differing estimates of death tolls cannot be resolved. Personal accounts can be challenged and contradicted.

Not every portion of film can be vouched for as genuine and newly shot. But those hundreds of bursts of video streaming out of Syria, many from sources known to Reuters and checked by independent journalists familiar with Homs and other cities, display an undeniable picture of extreme violence.

In one segment posted on Thursday, the body of a young man lying in an empty street by an empty park is retrieved by means of a cable lashed around his ankle. The corpse is dragged to shelter across a crossroads and through a puddle.

In a segment posted on Friday, sniper fire smacks into the shopfronts of a deserted street whenever someone tries to dash across. The impacts are visible. The fire is real.

In another video, a heavy machinegun hidden under a tarpaulin behind a mound of garbage on a city corner fires long bursts into the street and then directly at whomever is holding the video camera. The screen goes white. Then a voice calls "God is Great", the smoke clears and the video image returns.

(Additional reporting by Ibon Villelabeitia in Ankara and Ayat Basma in Beirut; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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