Syrian opposition blames regime for massacre

Syrian opposition blames regime for massacre

Up to 100 people dead after Thursday's brutal attack on Sunni village

Anti-Syrian regime protesters carry a banner during a demonstration in Idlib province, northern Syria, last month. (photo credit: AP/Edlib News Network ENN)
Anti-Syrian regime protesters carry a banner during a demonstration in Idlib province, northern Syria, last month. (photo credit: AP/Edlib News Network ENN)

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s main opposition group on Friday accused President Bashar Assad’s regime of committing a “large-scale massacre” in a Sunni village near the Mediterranean coast, killing at least 50 people, according to activists.

Syrian troops backed by pro-government gunmen on Thursday swept into Bayda, a village in the mountains outside the city of Banias, and killed men, women and children and torched homes, according to The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Observatory documented the names of at least 50 dead, but said as many as 100 might have been killed. The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, cited witnesses as saying that some of the victims were killed with knives or blunt objects and that dozens of villagers were missing.

In a statement, the opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition, said: “Reports now confirm a large-scale massacre in Bayda. Initial reports confirm that Assad’s forces were directly involved” in the violence in the area.

“It is time for the world to intervene and put an end to the grievous crimes of the Assad regime,” the Cairo-based opposition group said, urging the international community to act and protect Syrian civilians.

In a video that the Observatory sent to the media on Friday, at least seven men and boys wearing civilian clothes are seen lying in pools of blood in front of a house. The caption on the video says “the first images of executions in Bayda.”

A woman touching the body of one of the men can be heard saying, “Don’t fall asleep. Don’t move.”

Referring to a Muslim pronouncement of faith before death, she tells him to say “There is no god, but Allah.”

As the camera pans bloodied bodies on the ground, another woman is heard screaming, “Where are you, people of the village?”

The video appears genuine and consistent with reporting by The Associated Press from the area.

The Syrian troops were still in Bayda village on Friday, conducting house to house searches, said Rami Abdul Rahman, the Observatory’s director. He added that phone and Internet service to the village was cut and the area remained under regime control, making it impossible to verify the final death toll and more details on events.

The Syrian conflict, now in its third year, started as peaceful protests against Assad’s rule in March 2011. It turned into armed conflict between the opposition and the government after some opposition supporters took up weapons to fight a harsh regime crackdown on dissent and soon became a full-scale civil war.

More than 70,000 people have been killed so far in the conflict, according to the United Nations. More than 1 million Syrians have fled their homes and sought shelter in neighboring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, while millions more have been internally displaced by the fighting.

The war also has split the country along religious lines, and the violence in Bayda appeared to have sectarian overtones. The village is primarily inhabited by Sunni Muslims, who dominate the country’s rebel movement, while most of the surrounding villages are home to members of President Bashar Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

The Observatory’s informants from the area reported heavy fighting in Bayda early on Thursday that left at least six government troops dead and more than 20 wounded, according to Abdul-Rahman. He said regime troops backed by gunmen from nearby Alawite villages returned that afternoon and eventually overran Bayda.

Syrian state media did not report on the events in the village in its daily roundup of army activities around the country. The country’s official news agency SANA said Friday the army has continued “crackdown on terrorists groups” without mentioning any operations in Bayda or the nearby Banias. Syrian state media refers to rebels fighting to topple Assad’s regime as terrorists.

A report in the English-language newspaper, The Syria Times, briefly mentioned Bayda on Friday, saying government troops seized weapons there. The newspaper is published daily by the Syrian Information Ministry in Damascus.

If confirmed, the violence in Bayda would be the latest in a string of alleged mass killings in Syria’s civil war. Last month, activists said government troops killed more than 100 people as they seized two rebel-held suburbs of Damascus.

The relentless fighting has left the international community at a loss to find ways to end the bloodshed as neither side appears willing to find a political solution at the moment.

While the US and its European and Gulf allies have backed the opposition forces, they have been reluctant to provide the rebels fighting Assad’s troops with weapons that could stand up to the regime’s superior firepower. They fear the arms could end up in the hands of radical Islamic groups that in the past year have become the most effective fighting force on the opposition’s side.

On Thursday, President Barack Obama said his administration was looking at every option to end the bloodshed in Syria. Speaking at a news conference in Mexico City, Obama said the administration was proceeding cautiously as it looked at options to ensure that what it does is helpful to the situation rather than making it more deadly or complex.

In Washington, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, became the first top American official to publicly acknowledge that the administration was rethinking its opposition to arming the Syrian rebels. During a Pentagon news conference on Thursday, Hagel said that “arming the rebels — that’s an option,” but added that the administration was looking at all options. “It doesn’t mean that the president has decided on anything,” Hagel said.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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