AMMAN (Reuters) - Security forces killed 37 people in Syria on Friday, activists and residents said, as people in Homs mourned 14 members of a family they said were slain by militiamen in one of the worst sectarian attacks in a revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.
The U.N. Security Council was to meet later in the day to discuss Syria before a possible vote next week on a new Western-Arab draft resolution aimed at halting 10 months of bloodshed.
Russia, which joined China in vetoing a previous Western draft resolution in October and which has since promoted its own draft, said the Western-Arab version was unacceptable and vowed to block any text calling for Assad’s resignation.
There was no let-up in violence on Friday, when anti-Assad protests again erupted after weekly Muslim prayers.
Tank and mortar fire killed 15 people in Hama, a resident said, on the fourth day of an army assault on rebellious districts of the city, where Assad’s father crushed an armed Islamist uprising in 1982, killing many thousands.
The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 22 people killed elsewhere in Syria, including 12 when security forces fired on a funeral march in the southern town of Nowa, five in the normally peaceful city of Aleppo, and four in Homs.
Machinegun fire wounded five people in the Qusour district of Homs, one activist there said, adding that the city was calmer than it was at the height of Thursday’s violence, when 16 people were also killed by mortar fire from security forces.
The state news agency SANA said “terrorists” killed a security man in Homs on Friday and a bomb killed a child and wounded several civilians and security personnel in the Damascus district of Midan.
SANA also said a bomb wounded three civilians and three security men in the northeastern town of Albukamal and that a suicide bomber had wounded two security men at a checkpoint in the northwestern province of Idlib.
Arab League observers headed for the Damascus suburb of Douma, where government troops battled rebel fighters the previous day as the struggle to topple Assad rumbled close to the Syrian capital.
The Arab League has demanded that the Syrian leader step down as part of a transition to democracy, a call rejected by Damascus. The government says it is fighting foreign-backed armed “terrorists” who have killed 2,000 soldiers and police.
“Any decision about a future political settlement in Syria must be made during the political process without ... preliminary conditions,” Interfax news agency quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov as saying.
He stopped short of saying Moscow would veto a Western-Arab draft if the call for Assad to hand over power was not removed.
The text calls for a “political transition,” but not for United Nations sanctions against Assad’s government, which Moscow, an old ally and arms supplier of Syria, opposes.
Russia and Iran are among Syria’s few remaining allies.
In another sign of Assad’s isolation, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has effectively abandoned his headquarters in Damascus, diplomatic and intelligence sources said.
“He’s not going back to Syria,” a regional intelligence source said of Meshaal, who has long been based in the Syrian capital. He heads the Palestinian Islamist group which rules Gaza and is an armed offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Analysts say Meshaal was embarrassed by Assad’s crackdown, in which more than 5,000 people have been killed, many of them Sunni Muslim sympathisers of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Homs, a mostly Sunni city with minority Alawite enclaves, has become a battleground since protests against Assad began in March, inspired by pro-democracy revolts elsewhere in the Arab world. Armed rebels have joined the fray in recent months.
Residents and activists said militiamen from Assad’s Alawite sect had shot or hacked to death 14 members of the Sunni Bahader family in Homs’s Karm al-Zaitoun district on Thursday, including eight children, aged eight months to nine years old.
YouTube video footage taken by activists, which could not be verified, showed the bodies of five children with wounds to the head and neck, three women and a man in a house.
There was no comment from Syrian authorities, which enforce tight restrictions on independent media.
At least 384 children have been killed since the uprising began in March and a similar number have been jailed, the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said on Friday.
The British-based Observatory said 43 civilians were killed on Thursday, including 33 in Homs, of whom nine were children.
Hamza, an activist in Homs, said the militiamen who attacked the Sunni family were avenging deaths inflicted on their ranks by army defectors loosely grouped in the rebel Free Syrian Army.
Tit-for-tat sectarian killings began in Homs four months ago. Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi‘ite Islam, has dominated the political and security apparatus in Syria, a mostly Sunni nation of 23 million, for five decades.
“The Assads are the dirtiest of families,” shouted crowds in Deir Balba, on the edge of Homs, according to a YouTube clip that showed people waving pre-Baath party Syrian flags.
In the city’s Bab Amro district, demonstrators carried the body of a youth who had been shot in the head. “Bashar, your mother will bury you,” they chanted, YouTube footage showed.
It was not possible to verify the footage, which anti-Assad campaigners had posted on the Internet.
The opposition Local Coordination Committees said security forces had fired on an anti-Assad protest by refugees from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights who live in Thiabieh near Damascus. It said several protesters were wounded.
Activists in the Damascus suburb of Irbin said 15,000 people had turned out to demonstrate against Assad.
Several thousand also gathered in the rain in the ancient, eastern desert town of Palmyra, clapping to anti-Assad anthems. “Bashar, God is greater (than you)!” they sang.
Additional reporting by Erika Solomon and Dominic Evans in Beirut, Steve Gutterman in Moscow, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Mark Heinrich