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 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 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 shabbiha 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 had documented the names of at least 50 dead in Bayda, but that dozens of villagers were still missing and the death toll could rise up to 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 Friday, conducting house-to-house searches, according to the Observatory’s director, Rami Abdel-Rahman. He added that phone and Internet service to the village was severed, 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 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 shabbiha, was aimed at driving Sunnis from areas near main routes to the coast to ensure Alawite control.
Months of bloodshed 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.
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.
After having rejected the idea previously, President Barack Obama’s administration was weighing the option of providing weapons to the rebels.
“As we’ve seen evidence of further bloodshed, potential use of chemical weapons inside of Syria, what I’ve said is that we’re going to look at all options,” Obama said in Mexico.
But, Obama added, “we want to make sure that we look before we leap and that what we’re doing is actually helpful to the situation, as opposed to making it more deadly or more complex.”