DAMASCUS: Syrian soldiers surrounded an industrial area near Damascus Friday after an al-Qaida linked rebel faction infiltrated the area earlier this week, reportedly killing dozens of civilians, according to the government and activists.
Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the Nusra Front, entered buildings housing workers and their families, shooting men, women and children in Adra, northeast of the capital, according to the reports. Most residents of the area are from the minority Alawite and Druse sects, which largely support President Bashar Assad in his fight against mainly Sunni rebels.
The exact death toll could not be determined. State-run Syrian TV reported that scores of civilians have been killed since Wednesday, prompting the army to surround the town.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it has documented the names of 19 civilians killed - most Alawites and Druse - and many more were feared dead after the rampage by the Islamic militants.
Syria's 23 million people belong to a patchwork of different religious groups, and the three-year conflict has taken on increasingly sectarian overtones in the past year, particularly as fighting brigades composed of al-Qaida loyalists gain influence.
Assad is an Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, as are many of his security forces. Other minorities in the country including Christians, Druse and Shiites have mostly sided with Assad or remained on the fence, fearing a takeover of the country by Islamic extremists.
A Syrian opposition figure who was in touch with people in the area said extremists were looking for people and killing them on a sectarian basis, adding that the number of dead civilians could be in the "dozens."
"Some people are being shot and others are being beheaded. They include Christians, Alawites, Druse and Shiites," the opposition figure said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
He added that when militants tried to kill a Shiite man, he took out a grenade he had with him and blew it up killing himself, his wife, mother, brother and son and several of his attackers.
Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi condemned what he called the "brutal massacre in Adra's industrial city" in comments carried by Syrian TV. Syrian Minister of Social Affairs Kinda Shammat said the army was now carrying out an operation in the area to restore security.
The Observatory reported "fierce clashes" Friday, adding that troops were advancing in the suburb on Friday. The Observatory, which has a network of activists around the country, said both sides suffered casualties and troops were lobbing mortar shells at the area.
Also Friday, the state-run news agency said Syrian authorities released 366 prisoners from the main prison in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest. The prison has been under siege by rebels for months and is subjected to almost daily shelling.
SANA said the prisoners were released for humanitarian reasons and because of "the siege imposed by terrorists."
The Syrian conflict began in March 2011 as a popular uprising against Assad that quickly devolved into a civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people and forced millions from their homes.
In Lebanon, snow fell on northern and eastern regions where tens of thousands of Syrian refugees are staying, many of them in flimsy plastic tents. Syrian refugees struggled to keep tents in place and were seen gathering sticks of wood from nearby fields to use them for heating. Families crammed into damp, muddy tents struggling to keep warm. In some cases, Syrian children came out of their tents to play with the snow.