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BEIRUT — Dozens of civilians in Syria's flashpoint city of Homs were killed in cold blood, the government and opposition said on Monday, disputing responsibility for what both sides called a massacre during a visit from special envoy Kofi Annan.
"There are grave and appalling reports of atrocities and abuses (in Syria)," Annan told reporters in Ankara before meeting Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. "Killings of civilians must end now. The world must send a clear and united message that this is simply unacceptable."
The carnage in Homs followed the army's launch of an assault on Idlib city in the northwest and coincided with the first visit to Syria by UN-Arab League envoy Annan, who was seeking agreement on a ceasefire, humanitarian access and political dialogue.
Activists in Homs and Syrian TV showed videos of bloodied bodies, their hands tied behind their backs, lying on trash-littered streets and in blood spattered rooms. Opposition groups also uploaded videos of corpses being wrapped in white shrouds as crowds lined up to pray for the dead, who are believed to have been killed late on Sunday.
A popular uprising against four decades of Assad family rule erupted a year ago and has become increasingly bloody as rebels fight a state forces' crackdown.
The United Nations estimates Syrian security forces have killed well over 7,500 people. The government says foreign militants are behind the unrest and are responsible for the death of more than 2,500 security forces.
The head of the United Nations urged President Bashar al-Assad to respond within the next few days and called military operations against a year-long uprising "shameful."
"The Syrian government has failed to fulfill its responsibility to protect its own people and instead has subjected its citizens in several cities to military assault and disproportionate use of force," said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. "These shameful operations continue."
Rapes and slit throats
Government restrictions on media access have made it hard to assess conflicting reports by the authorities and activists of the mass killing reported on Monday.
A medical worker in Homs working in the rebel-held neighborhood of Khalidiya said many of the victims were killed with knives and some of the women appeared to have been raped.
"We received the bodies in two batches ... we tried to go to see if there were any survivors but they were all dead," said the medical worker, who called himself Yazan.
"I saw two females who were raped, one was around 12 or 13 years old. She was covered in blood and her underclothes were off. One of the women was strangled; she had bruises on her neck. Some of the bodies I saw, especially the children, had their throats slit."
The government and opposition each said the other side was to blame for the killings in Homs, where Syrian forces retook a rebel-held district on 1 March after a 26-day siege.
United Nations investigators on Monday said Syria subjected civilians to "collective punishment" and that its forces stand accused of carrying out executions and mass arrests in Baba Amr.
"The terrorist armed groups have kidnapped scores of civilians in Homs, killed and mutilated their corpses and filmed them to be shown by media outlets," state news agency SANA said.
The Local Coordination Committees of Syria, a grassroots opposition network, said at least 45 women and children had been stabbed and burned in the Homs district of Karm al-Zeitoun.
It said another seven people were slain in the city's Jobar district, near the former rebel bastion of Baba Amr.
Activists contacted in Homs accused pro-Assad "shabbiha" militiamen of carrying out the killings.
At a special UN Security Council meeting on Arab revolts, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Assad had cynically launched military assaults while meeting with Annan.
"How cynical that, even as Assad was receiving former (UN) Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the Syrian Army was conducting a fresh assault on Idlib and continuing its aggression in Hama, Homs, and Rastan," she told the Security Council.
Annan, who held talks with Qatari leaders before visiting Turkey, said he was trying to bring about a solution as swiftly as possible, and provide relief to civilians in the areas worst hit by the fighting between forces loyal to Assad and rebels.
"It is not going to be easy," he said. "It is going to take time, hopefully not too much time because we can't afford this to drag on for a while. Neither is it going to be solved today."
Russia and China have blocked attempts to pass a Security Council resolution condemning Damascus for its attempts to crush the rebellion. They want both sides to be encouraged to stop fighting. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who wield heavy influence in the Arab League have taken a hawkish line, are calling for the rebels to be armed.
Clinton rejected Moscow and Beijing's effort to have international blame for the violence apportioned evenly between rebels and the government. She is to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of the UN meeting.
"We reject any equivalence between premeditated murders by a government's military machine and the actions of civilians under siege driven to self-defense," she said.
The United States has drafted a new resolution, but Washington and Paris say they doubt it will be accepted.
China sounded an optimistic note, but gave no details.
"China has actively participated in discussion about this draft resolution, and raised its ideas about revising it," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said on Monday.
"We also support the international community playing an active role in a political solution to the Syria issue."
China and Russia, as well as Western and Arab nations, have voiced support for Annan's peace mission, but no common ground has emerged between Assad, who is bent on crushing dissent, and his opponents, who are determined to overthrow him.
"The situation is so bad and so dangerous that all of us cannot afford to fail," Annan said in Damascus on Sunday.