BEIRUT -- The discovery of three corpses with their eyes gouged out set off a sectarian killing spree that left 30 people dead in a chilling sign that the Syrian revolt against President Bashar Assad is inflaming long-simmering religious tensions.
The opposition accused the president's minority Alawite regime of trying to stir up trouble among the Sunni majority to blunt the growing enthusiasm for the four-month-old uprising. The protesters have been careful to portray their movement as free of any sectarian overtones.
The killings over the weekend in the central city of Homs "undermine the peaceful nature of the revolution and serve its enemies who want to turn it into a civil war," said Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Homs-based activist Mohammad Saleh said the violence began Saturday after the corpses of three Alawite government supporters were dumped in Homs with their eyes gouged.
On Sunday, six bodies from various sects were found in the city, apparently in revenge attacks, Saleh said. Pro-government Alawite thugs called shabiha then went on a rampage, another activist said, opening fire in predominantly Sunni neighborhoods of Homs.
The dead included a 27-year-old mother of three, who was shot as she left her home, and a man in his 50s who was struck by a bullet on his balcony, a resident said. Up to 40 shops were vandalized or burned, he said.
Sectarian warfare is among the most dire scenarios facing Syria. The country is home to more than 1 million refugees from neighboring Iraq, who serve as a clear testament to the dangers of regime collapse and fracture in a religiously divided society.
An offshoot of Shia Islam, the Alawite sect represents about 11 percent of the population in Syria. The sect's longtime dominance has bred seething resentments, which Assad has worked to tamp down by enforcing a strictly secular identity in Syria.