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Activists: Civilians ‘massacred’ in central Syria

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BEIRUT — Syrian activists said Monday that pro-government gunmen have killed at least a dozen people — including children — in the latest violence in the embattled central city of Homs. State media in Damascus confirmed the deaths but blamed "armed terrorists."

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 12 people were killed Sunday night while the Local Coordination Committees said 45 were "murdered." Both groups said children were among the dead.

Homs has been one of the hardest hit cities in violence since an uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime began in March last year. Several Homs neighborhoods, including Karm el-Zeytoun where Sunday's deaths occurred, were controlled by rebels and retaken by government forces earlier this month.

Pictures posted online by activists showed the bodies of five children who were disfigured after being apparently hit with sharp objects. At least six dead adults were covered with sheets.

The LCC and the Observatory said the attack was carried out by gunmen known as "shabiha" who have been playing a major role in crushing the year-old uprising.

The Observatory called on the United Nations to form an independent investigative committee to find "those committing massacres and have them face justice."

Syria's state-run media quoted an unnamed official as saying that armed groups in some area in Homs are kidnapping people, then killing and disfiguring them in order to bring international condemnation to the regime.

Assad's regime blames the uprising on armed groups and terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy.

The bloody conflict in Syria is likely to dominate public and private talks Monday when key ministers meet at the United Nations on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and challenges from the Arab Spring.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will hold bilateral talks as ministers from the 15 council nations attend an open Security Council meeting to look ahead after last year's Arab uprisings.

Much attention is likely to be focused on the private meeting between Clinton and Lavrov, which is expected to be dominated by serious differences over how to address the violence in Syria, which the U.N. estimates has killed over 7,500 people.

"We have been used to the escalation by armed terrorist groups before meetings at the Security Council with the aim of inciting stances against Syria," state-run news agency SANA quoted the unnamed Syrian official as saying.

An international push to end Syria's conflict has stalled as U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan left Damascus on Sunday without a cease-fire deal.

Western and Arab powers are struggling for ways to stem the bloodshed in the year-old conflict while both the regime and the opposition reject dialogue. Annan appeared to make little progress during two meetings with Assad during his first trip to Syria as the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy.

Annan was seeking an immediate cease-fire to allow for humanitarian aid and the start of a dialogue between all parties on a political solution. After meeting with Assad on Sunday, Annan said he had presented steps to ease the crisis, but gave no details.