Khalil Hamra, Associated Press
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.
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