Activists say dozens killed in Syrian village

BEIRUT: Syrian troops backed by pro-government gunmen swept into a Sunni village in the mountains near the Mediterranean coast on Thursday, killing dozens of people, including women and children, and torching homes, activists said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that at least 50 people — and possibly as many as 100 — were killed in the violence in Bayda, a village outside the city of Banias. It cited witnesses who said some of the dead were killed with knives or blunt objects and that dozens of villagers were still missing.

Syria’s civil war has largely split the country down religious lines, and the violence in Bayda appeared to have sectarian overtones. The village is primarily inhabited by Sunni Muslims, who dominate the country’s rebel movement, while most of the surrounding villages are home to members of PresidentBashar Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

With the conflict now in its third year, the sectarian divide in the country is worsening. There has been heavy fighting raging between Sunni and Shiite villages in the area of Qusair, near the Lebanese border. Islamic extremists who have joined the rebels have destroyed Christian liquor stores, and sometimes refer to their dead adversaries with derogatory names insulting their sects.

Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman said there was heavy fighting in Bayda early Thursday that left at least six government troops dead and more than 20 wounded. He said regime troops backed by gunmen from nearby Alawite villages returned in the afternoon and eventually overran Bayda.

In the aftermath, telephone and Internet service to the village was cut and the area remained under regime control, making it impossible to verify the day’s final death toll, Abdul-Rahman said.

But if confirmed, the violence would be the latest in a string of alleged mass killings in Syria’s bloody civil war. Last month, activists said government troops killed more than 100 people as they seized two rebel-held suburbs of Damascus.

Some 70,000 people have been killed and thousands of others maimed, injured or missing in Syria since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011, according to the United Nations. Both the U.N. Human Rights Council and the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria have published multiple reports documenting crimes committed during the civil war, including the slaughter of more than 100 civilians in the central region of Houla last May blamed on pro-regime militiamen.

The conflict’s humanitarian toll has accelerated as the fighting on the ground has grown more intense, and neither side appears willing to find a political solution at the moment. The rebels are trying to expand upon their gains in the past year that have put them in control of much of northern Syria as well as a growing foothold in the south along the border with Jordan.