Eyewitnesses and residents say the city has been living in a state of fear.
“People open businesses and shops but the moment gunfire is heard, everything closes and the streets are empty,” says a woman from Homs while on a short visit to Lebanon. The bodies of people killed by the security forces are removed from the streets as quickly as possible to prevent authorities from taking away the bodies or detaining family members, she added.
“There are many hundreds of people who have died,” she said.
The woman is an adherent of the Alawite faith, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, which forms the backbone of Assad's regime.
She lives in a building inhabited by fellow Alawites with armed guards protecting the entrances. She said that graffiti had appeared on walls around the city reading “The Christians to Beirut and the Alawites to the grave.”
The Syrian authorities claim the graffiti is written by Sunnis and indicate the fate of minorities in Syria if the Assad regime is replaced by a state run by Islamic extremists. The opposition, however, maintains the slogans are daubed by Syrian intelligence agents to incite sectarian ill-feeling and to rally the support of minority sects for the regime.
Since Assad announced a reform package three weeks ago, the regime has used force to try and suppress the street protests. It set a May 15 deadline for the surrender of all those who have committed “unlawful acts.” As of last week, the two sides appeared to have reached a stalemate. The opposition was refusing to back down, but the protest movement seemed to be having difficulties gaining greater momentum. The two key cities of Damascus and Aleppo generally have remained quiet.