BEIRUT: Fighters from an Al-Qaeda-linked rebel group killed 12 members of the minority Alawite sect in central Syria after seizing their village, an opposition monitoring group said Wednesday. Alawites are an offshoot sect of Shiite Islam and have been increasingly targeted by radical fighters among the Sunni-dominated opposition in the two-and-a-half-year revolt against President Bashar Assad, himself an Alawite.
Under four decades of Assad family rule, Alawites have made up most of the political and military elite in Syria. The rise of hard-line Islamists in the rebellion and the possibility of major attacks on minorities like Alawites have contributed to a Western hesitancy to intervene directly in the conflict.
The latest killings occurred after of Nusra Front rebels, who are affiliated with Al-Qaeda, stormed the village of Maksar al-Hesan east of the city of Homs Tuesday, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Observatory, an opposition activist group which has a network of sources across Syria, cited residents and medics in its report.
Nusra Front fighters then shot dead at least 12 Alawite civilians in the village, the Observatory’s director Rami Abdel-Rahman said, including some women and elderly.
He added that the reason behind the killings was unclear, but they may have been executions.
Waleed al-Fares, an activist in Homs, denied rebels had killed civilians in the area and said Alawites who died Tuesday were killed while fighting on the government’s side.
Al-Qaeda-linked groups in the opposition have pledged to avenge an apparent chemical weapons attack outside Damascus that killed between 500 and 1,400 people on Aug. 21, according to activist reports. The opposition and Western powers say Assad’s forces were behind the attack. His government denies it.
The Islamist insurgents’ “Eye for an Eye” campaign has targeted Alawite areas in particular.
Within hours after Nusra fighters swept into Maksar al-Hesan, regime forces retook the village in clashes that killed at least two government fighters and a number of rebels, according to the Observatory.
U.S. President Barack Obama had been pushing for a military strike on Syria in order to punish Assad for the chemical weapons attack, but has been held up by domestic and international political wrangling.
Obama Tuesday pledged to explore a Russian proposal for Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control but pledged to keep military forces ready to strike in the event the initiative failed.
Ground fighting and airstrikes have continued in nearly every province of Syria, often killing more than 1,000 people a week.
Some 3,000 people – around a third of them civilians – have been killed in Syria since Aug. 22, the day after the alleged chemical attack, according to the Observatory.
In a separate incident Tuesday, gunmen killed a family of four from Al-Matras, a village of minority Turkmen in the coastal Tartous province, the Observatory said.