BEIRUT — Syrian opposition activists said Monday that soldiers and progovernment thugs had rounded up scores of civilians in the devastated central city of Homs overnight, assaulting men and women, then killed dozens of them, including children, and set some bodies on fire. Syria immediately denied responsibility.
The attacks prompted a major exile opposition group to sharpen its calls for international military action and arming of the opposition. Some activists called the killings a new phase of the crackdown that appeared aimed at frightening people into fleeing Homs, an epicenter of the rebellion.
The Syrian government said just a few weeks ago that it had pacified Homs after a month of shellings and shootings.
Activists’ reports of killings in at least two neighborhoods in Homs varied in some of the details and in the death tolls, which were estimated at between 47 and 53.
The government reported the latest killings as well, but attributed them to “terrorist armed groups,’’ a description it routinely uses for opponents, including armed men, army defectors, and protesters in the year-old uprising against President Bashar Assad.
Syria’s restrictions on outside news media access made it impossible to reconcile the contradictory accounts of the killings, which appeared to be one of the worst atrocities in the conflict. But accounts of witnesses and images posted on YouTube gave some credence to the opposition’s assertions that government operatives were responsible.
An activist in Homs, Wael al-Homsi, said in a telephone interview that he had counted dozens of bodies, including those of women and children, in the Karm el-Zeitoun neighborhood of Homs while helping move bodies to a rebel-controlled area in cars and pickup trucks. He said residents had told him that about 500 athletically built armed men, in civilian clothes and military uniforms, had killed members of nine families and burned their houses, adding, “there are still bodies under the wreckage.’’
Activists and the Syrian government described the attacks as a massacre, a day after a special emissary of the United Nations and the Arab League, Kofi Annan, a former UN secretary general, left the country without reaching a deal to end the fighting.
News of the latest killings came as the UN Security Council debated in New York, where the United States and Russia, Syria’s main international backer, tangled over how to address the crisis.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called on Russia and China, which have vetoed previous resolutions aimed at holding Assad accountable and beginning a political transition, to join international “humanitarian and political efforts’’ to end the crisis, which she blamed directly on Assad.
Clinton added, referring to shelling and other military action in Syrian cities over the weekend, “How cynical that, even as Assad was receiving former secretary general Kofi Annan, the Syrian army was conducting a fresh assault on Idlib and continuing its aggression in Hama, Homs, and Rastan.’’
Her Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov, agreed that any solution in Syria “requires an immediate end of violence.’’ But he said armed elements of the opposition in Syria were also responsible for the crisis there, and that the Security Council must act “without imposing any prejudged solutions.’’
After meeting separately with Lavrov, Clinton called the meeting constructive. She told reporters he would deliver to Moscow her “very strong view that the alternative to our unity on these points will be bloody internal conflict with dangerous consequences for the whole region.’’
The Syrian National Council, the main expatriate opposition group, held a news conference in Istanbul and issued a statement that intensified longstanding calls by some of its members for outside military action.