BEIRUT: An attack on a Syrian village Tuesday killed or wounded as many as 200 members of President Bashar Assad’s Alawite minority sect, activists said, but it was unclear who was behind the assault.
The attack came as the United States designated the radical Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra, an important fighting force in the opposition struggle, as a foreign terrorist organization and said it was trying to hijack the rebellion on behalf of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Casualty counts from the village varied, but several activists said they could confirm 10 dead. The opposition-linked Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 125 were hurt or killed in a series of explosions that destroyed several houses in the town of Aqrab. There were no reports on Syria’s state media.
An Alawite resident from the nearby town of Masyaf in western Syria blamed the attack on rebels from the town of Houla, who he said had sparked clashes with pro-Assad militiamen known as Shabbiha.
Houla, about 8 km from Aqrab, suffered a massacre of more than 100 Sunnis last May, in which more than half of the victims were children.
“We don’t believe there was a massacre [in Aqrab] but we think there were a number of hostages being held by the rebels. Clashes began when rebels started shelling a Shabbiha checkpoint,” he said by Skype. “Now the phone lines seem to be down in Aqrab so that’s all we know.”
Other activists blamed Assad’s forces for the attack, which they said involved the shelling of a house in which at least 200 Alawites were hiding.
The circumstances of the attacks were unclear and impossible to verify independently. Syrian authorities tightly restrict the activities of journalists. The incident is the first known report of any large scale assault on Alawites in the 20-month-old Syrian uprising.
A rebel who spoke to Reuters by telephone said fighters had clashed with the army in Aqrab for four days. Rebels had surrounded one building and accused the Shabbiha of using residents hiding there as human shields.
“There were 200 people inside and we called on the residents to leave, but the Shabbiha held some women and children by gunpoint. Eventually talks fell apart and the government shelled the building,” said the rebel, who called himself Maysar.
Syria’s Sunni majority has mostly led the uprising against Assad, and that has caused friction with minorities such as the Alawites, who have largely stood by the president.
With the circumstances of the attack still murky, it risks sparking a fresh wave of sectarian bloodshed in a region of Syria where three massacres of Sunnis were reported in the past year.
There have been many reports of kidnappings and revenge killings between Sunnis and Alawites in the region.
Wounded children, apparently Alawites from Aqrab, appeared at an opposition field hospital in the town of Al-Houla, a few kilometers away, where they were interviewed by rebels in videos published on YouTube.
Three young boys interviewed said they and at least 200 other people had been hiding with Shabbiha, but did not say whether they were hiding from government shelling or rebel attack.
“We were inside the house with Shabbiha; they said they were protecting us from the rebels.
The rebels started telling us, ‘come out, no one will hurt you,’” said Mohammad Judl, a young boy covered in a blanket, shivering as he was interviewed by an activist at the clinic. “The Shabbiha wouldn’t let us leave.”
Washington, citing Al-Qaeda links, put Al-Nusra Front on its terror blacklist Tuesday, a day after the jihadist faction showed its power in the battlefield by capturing a key army base.
U.S. officials said Al-Nusra had claimed responsibility for carrying out nearly 600 attacks in major cities that have killed numerous innocent Syrians during the 20-month uprising against Assad.
“Through these attacks, Al-Nusra has sought to portray itself as part of the legitimate Syrian opposition while it is, in fact, an attempt by AQI to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, using the acronym for AlQaeda in Iraq, said in a statement.
The U.S. Treasury, in a parallel move, also slapped sanctions on two militia groups working for the Assad government, including the infamous Shabbiha paramilitary organization accused of atrocities against civilians.
Designating Al-Nusra as a terrorist group means U.S. authorities can freeze any assets the group or its members have in U.S. jurisdictions. It also prohibits Americans from giving it any material support.
Al-Nusra’s fighters, many of them jihadist volunteers from around the Islamic world, were instrumental in the fall of the army’s massive Sheikh Suleiman base in northern Syria Monday after a months-long siege.
A high-level official in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood said the United States had made a “very wrong” decision by designating Al-Nusra a terrorist organisation.
“The designation is very wrong and too hasty. I think it is too early to categorize people inside Syria this way, considering the chaos and the gray atmosphere in the country,” Farouk Tayfour, deputy leader of the group, told Reuters.
On the ground, rebels clashed with forces loyal to Assad near Damascus airport, battling for the capital’s outskirts after 20 months of conflict which the United Nations said had driven half a million people from the country.
Fighting near the airport, 20 km southeast of Damascus city center, is part of a broader confrontation between the army and rebels who hold a near continuous arc of territory from the east to the southwest of Assad’s power base.
Starting Monday evening, reports of shelling reverberated through the center of Damascus, shielded for months from the violence which has killed 42,000 people since March 2011, residents said.
The shelling inside the capital appeared to be directed from the Qasioun mountain range, overlooking northern Damascus, toward the rebellious southern suburbs.
The Britain-based Observatory said 80 people had been killed by nightfall Tuesday.