BEIRUT – The bodies of the Syrian boys and young men in jeans and casual shirts were strewn along a blood-stained pavement, dying apparently where they fell. Weeping women moved among the dead, and one of them screamed, “Where are you, people of the village?”
In the Syrian civil war’s latest alleged mass killing, activists said Friday that regime troops and gunmen from nearby Alawite areas beat, stabbed and shot at least 50 people in the Sunni Muslim village of Bayda.
The slayings highlighted in the starkest terms the sectarian overtones of a conflict that has already killed more than 70,000 people. Details of the killings came to light as the Obama administration said it was again weighing whether to arm the rebels.
Syria’s 2-year-old crisis has largely broken along sectarian lines: the Sunni majority forms the backbone of the rebellion, while President Bashar Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, anchors the regime’s security services and military officer corps. Other minorities, such as Christians, largely support Assad or stand on the sidelines, worried that the regime’s fall would bring about a more Islamist rule.
The killings in Bayda fall against this backdrop. Tucked in the mountains outside the Mediterranean coastal city of Banias, the village is predominantly Sunni but is located in the Alawite ancestral heartland centered in the rugged region along the sea.
Activists say fighting broke out in Bayda early Thursday and that at least six government troops were killed. Syrian forces backed by Alawite gunmen known as shabiha from the surrounding area returned in the afternoon and stormed the village, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The gunmen torched homes and used knives, guns and blunt objects to kill people in the streets, the group said. It added that it has documented the names of at least 50 dead in Bayda, but that dozens of villagers are still missing and the death toll could rise to as high as 100.
Amateur video showed the bodies of at least seven men and boys lying in pools of blood on the pavement in front of a house as women wept around them.
“Don’t sleep, don’t move,” one woman sobbed, leaning over to touch one of the men, who appeared already dead. A woman also is heard wailing, “Where are you, people of the village?”
The video appears genuine and consistent with reporting by The Associated Press from the area.
Syria’s state news agency said late Thursday that the army conducted a raid in Bayda, killing several “terrorists” – the term it uses for those trying to oust Assad – and seizing machine guns, automatic rifles and other weapons.
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.
The Observatory also reported clashes and government shelling of Sunni areas of Banias on Friday.
If confirmed, the bloodshed in Bayda would be the latest in a series of alleged mass killings in the civil war. Last month, activists said government troops killed more than 100 people as they seized two rebel-held suburbs of Damascus.
The violence in Bayda bears a closer resemblance to two reported mass killings last year in Houla and Qubeir, Sunni villages surrounded by Alawite towns. Some activists said the Houla and Qubeir carnage, which they blame on regime forces and shabiha, was aimed at driving Sunnis from areas near main routes to the coast to ensure Alawite control.
Months of bloodshed have sharpened the divide and unleashed sectarian hatred. The violence has ripped apart communities and brought a bloody end to decades of coexistence. Retaliatory kidnappings and killings have surged.
That raises the prospect of Syria taking the same path as neighboring Iraq, where violence in 2006 and 2007 effectively turned into a kind of sectarian cleansing as Sunnis and Shiites fled the bloodletting by rival militias to the relative safety of their own communities. Lingering animosity has helped fuel renewed violence along those fault lines in recent weeks between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq.
In what amounted to little more than a symbolic protest, rebels in Syria fired rockets at the village of Qardaha, the hometown of Assad’s father, the Observatory said. There were no reports of casualties.
The main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, condemned what it called “a large-scale massacre in Bayda,” and urged the international community to act to protect Syrian civilians.
“It is time for the world to intervene and put an end to the grievous crimes of the Assad regime,” the Cairo-based group said in a statement.
While the U.S. and its European allies have backed the opposition, they have been reluctant to provide those fighting Assad’s troops with weapons that could challenge the regime’s superior firepower. They fear the arms could end up in the hands of radical Islamic groups, such as the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, that in the past year have become the most effective fighting force on the opposition’s side.
On Thursday, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Washington is rethinking its opposition to arming the rebels amid growing indications that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons – something President Barack Obama has called a “red line.”
The U.S. has said intelligence indicates Syria has used the nerve agent sarin on at least two occasions, but Obama has stressed that he needs more definitive proof before making a decision about how to respond – and whether to take military action. Damascus denies using chemical arms, and says the opposition is trying to frame it.
Obama said Thursday his administration was proceeding cautiously as it looked at options to ensure that what it does is helpful to the situation rather than making it more deadly or complex.
The Syrian crisis started with largely peaceful protests of Assad’s rule in March 2011, but shifted into an armed insurgency as opposition supporters took up weapons to fight a harsh regime crackdown on dissent.
The conflict has laid waste to cities and towns, forced more than 1 million Syrians to seek refuge in neighboring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and displaced millions more inside Syria.
Syria’s state news agency said mortars fired at the Damascus International Airport struck a kerosene tank and a commercial aircraft, causing significant material damage. It said the airport was functioning normally, although many airlines no longer fly into the Syrian capital because of the conflict.