A Syrian nuclear engineer was assassinated in a hail of bullets in central Syria Wednesday, the latest casualty in a string of murders this week of academics and scientists, Syria's state-run news agency and activists said.
SANA said engineer and university professor Aws Khalil was shot in the head by an "armed terrorist group" operating in Homs, but activists accused the regime of going after academics in an attempt to terrorize the city's rebellious population.
His killing came as fighting raged in the nearby town of Rastan for the second day between troops trying to enter the town and army deserters who have switched sides and joined the mass revolt against President Bashar Assad that began in mid-March.
Activists say there are hundreds of soldiers who have defected in Rastan and other areas on the outskirts of Homs. The Local Coordination Committees activist group and London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a defected lieutenant died in Wednesday's clashes.
Khalil is the fourth Syrian academic to be assassinated in Homs since Sunday. The city, a hotbed of dissent against Assad's autocratic regime, has witnessed some of the largest anti-government protests since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad began six months ago.
In the past month, it has witnessed almost daily clashes between Syrian troops and army defectors. There also have been increasing reports of attacks on security forces and police patrols by some who have taken up arms to fight the military crackdown.
Mohammed Saleh, an opposition figure in Homs, said Khalil's assassination Wednesday is part of a string of killings _ all in the same manner _ of Syrian academics. They include Hassan Eid, chief of chest surgery at the Homs hospital who had treated wounded Syrian protesters in the past months.
Also shot dead were professors Nael Dakhil, 54, and Mohammed Aqeel, 49, who was assassinated by bullets that struck his car in the Ghouta neighborhood of Homs.
The dead men came from different religious backgrounds _ Shiite, Alawite and Christian _ and it unclear whether the killings had any sectarian motives. None of those killed were Sunni, Saleh said.
The killings are reminiscent of assassinations in Iraq following the 2003 U.S. invasion of that toppled Saddam Hussein's regime, when the country was hit by a wave of assassinations that claimed the lives of scores of physicians, professors and nuclear experts in what led to a brain drain from the country.
Syria, like Iraq, has a volatile sectarian divide, making civil unrest a frightening prospect. The Assad regime is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, but the country is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.
Saleh said it was not clear who was behind the killings, adding there were gunmen operating in Homs and that the situation was fluid.
Syria-based activist Mustafa Osso blamed the regime was for the assassinations. "They are trying to sow chaos, fear and terror in the hope that protesters will be cowed into retreat," he said.
A statement by the Al Ghad coalition, an umbrella group of Syrian activists, said it was yet another attempt to crush the Syrian people's peaceful revolution.
"The regime has failed until now to create sectarian strife in Homs and it's trying again now to do so in a brutal way, disregarding the importance of scientific experts to Syrian society," a statement said.
SANA, the state-run news agency, said Khalil, like the other three academics, was killed by armed terrorist groups which it blames for the unrest in Syria.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch group, meanwhile, called for an international investigation into the possible role by Syrian security agents in the recent decapitation of an 18-year-old Syrian woman.
Zainab al-Hosni from Homs was beheaded and mutilated early this month, and her body returned to her family. She is believed to be the first woman to die in Syrian custody since the uprising started.
Activists said she had been detained by security agents to pressure her activist brother to turn himself in.
"Syrian security forces either killed and mutilated Zainab al-Hosni or are turning a blind eye to gangs committing gruesome murders against anti-government activists and their families," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
Zeina Karam can be reaached on http://twitter.com/zkaram