DAMASCUS, Syria, July 19 (UPI) -- At least 16 people were killed Tuesday in the city of Homs, as Syrian dissidents said armed supporters of President Bashir al-Assad fired at civilians.
At least 40 people have been killed in the city in the last few days, The Guardian reported. Homs, a city of 1.5 million in central Syria near the coast and 100 miles north of Damascus, has been occupied by government troops equipped with tanks for two months.
"We have to leave. We can't stay," a resident told the British newspaper. "It's too dangerous."
Dissidents said Assad's regime is encouraging religious sectarianism. The Assads are Alawis, members of a small offshoot of Shiite Islam in Syria, although Bashir's wife Asma, a native of Homs, is a Sunni.
The government allegedly has armed Alawis living in Homs and the cities of Latakiah, Banias and Jableh on the coast.
Much of the violence of recent days in Homs appeared sectarian.
After being taunted and threatened at a mosque during Friday noon prayers, Sunnis captured and killed three Alawites, dumping their bodies in a Sunni neighborhood Saturday, The Washington Post reported. In retaliation, Alawites looted and burned Sunni shops. In the rampage, at least three Sunnis were killed although some fighters said six Sunnis died, news outlets reported.
A medical worker who saw the bodies confirmed six deaths -- three Sunnis, three Alawites, the Post reported.
Residents Monday described Homs as a city in fear, with most shops closed, random bursts of gunfire and Sunni and Alawite residents fleeing areas where they found themselves in the minority.
"It's on the edge of civil war," a Christian businessman told the Post. Once a supporter of the protest movement seeking Assad's ouster, he said he now sides with the government after witnessing incidents of sectarianism that make him fearful for the future of Syria's religious minorities.
The Syrian government blames almost all of the protests on "armed gangs," and repeatedly warned unabated unrest could lead to civil war. Democracy activists, meanwhile, accuse the government of promoting sectarian tensions to justify use of brutal tactics to suppress protests and discourage the international community from backing protesters' demands for Assad's departure.
In Brussels, European Union foreign ministers adopted a declaration warning as long as the crackdown on protests continues, the bloc "will pursue and carry forward its current policy, including sanctions targeted against those responsible for, or associated with, the violent repression," the Gulf Times reported.
"It is really up to the Syrian people but I believe he [Assad] should reform or step aside," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said.
Qatar recalled its ambassador from Syria and closed its embassy after it was attacked by Assad loyalists, diplomats said.