BEIRUT: Syrian troops loyal to President Bashar Assad launched an offensive Friday aimed at expelling Islamists rebels from a town northwest of Damascus, as concern mounted over signs radical groups have commandeered the opposition movement against his rule. Syrian soldiers surrounded the industrial town of Adra, strategically located on a main road to the capital after an Al-Qaeda-linked opposition rebel faction infiltrated the area earlier this week, reportedly killing dozens of civilians in what appeared to be a sectarian massacre.
According to the government and activists, the Nusra Front entered buildings housing workers and their families, shooting men, women and children in Adra.
Most residents of the area are from the minority Alawite and Druze sects, which largely support 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 opposition linked Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it has documented the names of 19 civilians killed – most Alawites and Druze – and many more were feared dead after the rampage by the Islamic militants.
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 Social Affairs Minister Kinda Shammat said the army was now carrying out an operation in the area to restore security.
The three-year conflict has taken on increasingly sectarian overtones in the past year, particularly as fighting brigades composed of Al-Qaeda 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, Druze and Shiites have mostly sided with Assad or remained on the fence, fearing a takeover of the country by Islamic extremists.
In another development Friday that could serve to harden those fears, Islamist rebels linked to Al-Qaeda kidnapped at least 120 Kurdish civilians from a village near the Turkish border in Aleppo province, activists said.
The Observatory said the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) fighters entered Ihras, 20 south of the border town of Azaz, and took the captives, including at least six women, to an unknown location. It was the latest in a series of kidnappings and killings by ISIS this month targeting Kurds in northern Syria.
The latest reports come on the heels of a damaging setback to the western-backed moderate opposition.
Islamic militants took control of a cache of machine guns and ammunition intended for the Western-backed Free Syrian Army in Atmeh, in northern Syria last Friday, prompting the U.S. and U.K. to suspend non-lethal military assistance on Tuesday.
The mainstream Syrian opposition confirmed the takeover Friday and demanded the weapons be returned.
Syrian National Coalition official Monzer Akbik told reporters in London that it still wasn’t completely clear how a new alliance of hard-line Muslim fighters came to control warehouses containing rebel machine guns and ammunition at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Syria and Turkey, but they did.
“The reality is that the Islamic Front are holding, now, the hardware,” he said. “They should return it.”
The Islamic Front is an umbrella group of powerful ultra-conservative Muslim fighters.
The move has rattled supporters of the Coalition and, analysts say, weakened their hand weeks ahead of a proposed peace conference in Geneva that would bring Assad and his opponents to the negotiating table.
Akbik said the opposition needs additional support to restructure its forces on the ground.
“We need support, whether it is financial or whether it is equipment. This is the only way to prevent the fragmentations that are going on on the ground.”
Asked what would happen if the opposition did not restructure its military, he replied: “Complete chaos. There are many, many groups fighting the regime and fighting each other and fighting al Qaeda. It is a complete mess on the ground.”
Akbik said Gen. Salim Idriss, the Free Syrian Army commander, was in southern Turkey meeting with members of the Islamic Front to demand the return of the missing weapons.
Akbik said that despite the incident, the opposition was still hoping to include Islamic fighters as part of their delegation to the Geneva talks in January, saying the opposition was “keen to form a delegation that will be as wide as possible” and that the Islamic Front was welcome to send a representative to the talks as part of the opposition delegation.
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.”