BEIRUT - Two days of bloody turmoil in Syria have killed at least 74 people, including small children, as forces loyal to President Bashar Assad shelled residential buildings and fired on crowds in a dramatic escalation of violence, activists say.
Video posted online showed the bodies of five small children, five women and a man, all bloodied and piled on beds in what appeared to be an apartment after a building was hit in the city of Homs. A narrator said an entire family had been "slaughtered."
Much of the violence was focused in Homs, where heavy gunfire hammered the city Friday in a second day of chaos. A day earlier, the city saw a flare-up of sectarian kidnappings and killings between its Sunni and Alawite communities, and pro-regime forces blasted residential buildings with mortars and gunfire, according to activists.
At least 384 children have been killed, as of Jan. 7, in the crackdown on Syria's uprising since it began nearly 11 months ago, the U.N. children's agency UNICEF said Friday. The count, based on reports from human rights groups, included children under age 18.
Most of the deaths took place in Homs and most of the victims were boys, UNICEF said. It said 380 children have been detained, including some under age 14. The United Nations estimates that more than 5,400 people have died in the turmoil.
The U.N. Security Council began closed-door negotiations Friday on a new Arab-European draft resolution aimed at resolving the crisis, but Russia's envoy said he could not back the current language as it stands.
Any resolution faces strong opposition from China and Russia, and both nations have veto power. Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters that the text introduced by new Arab Security Council member Morocco has "red lines" for Moscow, but he's willing to "engage" with the resolution's sponsors.
Churkin said those lines include any indication of sanctions, including an arms embargo. "We need to concentrate on establishing political dialogue," he said.
The Syrian uprising, which began last March with mostly peaceful protests, has become increasingly violent in recent months as army defectors clash with government forces and some protesters take up arms to protect themselves. The violence has inflamed the sectarian divide in the country, where members of Assad's Alawite sect dominate the regime despite a Sunni Muslim majority.
Activists said at least 35 people were killed in Homs on Thursday and another 39 people were killed across the country Friday.
The video posted Friday by activists showed the bodies of five young children, their faces bloodied, wrapped in orange plastic bags. It said the children were believed to be from two families, the Akras and the Bahadours. Brown cardboard placards with the children's names written in Arabic were placed on their chests, identifying them: Thanaa, Ali, Najm, Abdul-Ghani and Sidra.
The video could not be independently verified.
Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, said the spike in violence was linked to increasing pressure from the international community, the Arab League and the United Nations.
"The regime is trying to finish the matter through military means as soon as possible," and for that reason the level of violence increased," he said.
On Tuesday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem insisted that Damascus will continue its crackdown and said Syria would not accept any international interference in its affairs.
Assad's regime claims terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy by the U.S., Israel and Gulf Arab countries are behind the uprising, not protesters seeking change.
The head of Arab League observers in Syria said in a statement that violence in the country has spiked over the past few days. Sudanese Gen. Mohammed Ahmed al-Dabi said the cities of Homs, Hama and Idlib have all witnessed a "very high escalation" in violence since Tuesday.
A "fierce military campaign" was also under way in the Hamadiyeh district of Hama since the early hours of Friday, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and other activists. They said the sound of heavy machine-gun fire and loud explosions reverberated across the area.
Some activists reported seeing uncollected bodies in the streets of Hama.
Elsewhere, a car bomb exploded Friday at a checkpoint outside the northern city of Idlib, the Observatory said, citing witnesses. The number of casualties was not immediately clear.
Details of the wave of killings in Homs emerged Friday from an array of residents and activists
"There has been a terrifying massacre," Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told the AP on Friday. He called for an independent investigation.
Thursday started with a spate of sectarian kidnappings and killings between the city's population of Sunnis and Alawites, a Shiite sect to which Assad belongs as well as most of his security and military leadership, said Mohammad Saleh, a centrist opposition figure and resident of Homs.
There was also a string of attacks by gunmen on army checkpoints, Saleh said. Checkpoints are a frequent target of dissident troops who have joined the opposition.
The Observatory said at least 11 people, including eight children, died when a building came under heavy mortar and machine-gun fire in the city's Karm el-Zaytoun neighbourhood. Some residents spoke of another massacre that took place when shabiha — armed regime loyalists — stormed the district, slaughtering residents in an apartment, including children.
"They are killing people because of their sect," said one Sunni resident of Karm el-Zaytoun, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Thursday's death toll in Homs was at least 35, said the Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees, an umbrella group of activists. Both groups cite a network of activists on the ground in Syria for their death tolls.
The reports could not be independently confirmed. Syria tightly controls access to trouble spots and generally allows journalists to report only on escorted trips, which slows the flow of information.
Also Friday, Iran's official IRNA news agency said gunmen in Syria kidnapped 11 Iranian pilgrims travelling by road from Turkey to Damascus.
Iranian pilgrims routinely visit Syria — Iran's closest ally in the Arab world — to pay homage to Shiite holy shrines. Last month, seven Iranian engineers building a power plant in central Syria were kidnapped. They have not yet been released.
The Free Syrian Army, a group of army defectors fighting the regime, released a video on its Facebook page claiming responsibility for the kidnapping and saying the Iranians were taking part in the suppression of the Syrian people.
AP writer Elizabeth A. Kennedy contributed to this report from Beirut.