Syrian opposition blames regime for village deaths

Syria’s main opposition group on Friday accused President Bashar Assad’s regime of committing a “large-scale massacre” in a Sunni village near the Mediterranean coast in which activists say at least 50 were killed with guns, knives and blunt objects.

The killings in Bayda reflect the sectarian overtones of Syria’s civil war. Tucked in the mountains outside the Mediterranean coastal city of Banias, the village is primarily inhabited by Sunni Muslims, who dominate the country’s rebel movement. But it is located in the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that is the backbone of the regime.

In amateur video purportedly taken after the killings, the bodies of at least seven men and boys are seen strewn in pools of blood on the pavement in front of a house as women weep around them.

“Don’t sleep, don’t move,” one woman sobs, leaning over to touch one of the men, who appeared already dead. The video appears genuine and consistent with reporting by the Associated Press from the area.

The war has largely split the country along sectarian lines, with the divide deepening over months of bloodshed. There has been heavy fighting in recent weeks between Sunnis and Shiites over villages near the Lebanese border, while Islamic extremists in the rebel ranks have injected a radical fervor, often referring to their adversaries with derogatory names insulting their sects.

The regime has so far kept a relatively solid grip on the Alawite heartland, centered on the mountainous region along the coast. The area is dotted with Sunni villages, but they are surrounded by larger Alawite communities, so the anti-Assad revolt has had a harder time taking hold.

Early Thursday, there was an eruption of fighting in Bayda and then in the afternoon, Syrian troops backed by gunmen from nearby Alawite villages swept into the village, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

They torched homes and used knives, guns and blunt objects to kill people in the streets, the group said. It said it has documented the names of at least 50 dead in Bayda, but that dozens of villagers were still missing and the death toll could rise to as high as 100.

Syria’s state news agency said late Thursday that the army conducted a raid in Bayda, killing several “terrorists” and seizing machine guns, automatic rifles and other weapons. The government refers to those trying to oust Assad as “terrorists.”

Syrian troops were still in Bayda on Friday, conducting house-to-house searches, according to the Observatory’s director, Rami Abdul Rahman. He added that phone and Internet service to the village was cut, making it impossible to verify the final death toll or pin down more details on what happened.

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