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Up to 200 hurt in attack on Syrian Alawite village - activists

BEIRUT (Reuters) - An attack on a Syrian village on Tuesday killed or injured as many as 200 members of President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite minority sect, activists said, but it was unclear who was behind the assault.

Casualty counts varied, but several activists said they could confirm 10 dead. The opposition-linked Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 125 were hurt or killed in a series of explosions that destroyed several houses in the town of Aqrab. There were no reports on Syria’s state media.

The circumstances of the attacks were unclear and impossible to verify independently. Syrian authorities tightly restrict the activities of journalists. The incident is the first known report of any large scale attack on Alawites in the 20-month-old Syrian uprising.

An Alawite resident from the nearby town of Masyaf in western Syria blamed the attack on rebels from the town of Houla, who he said had sparked clashes with pro-Assad militiamen known as shabbiha.

Houla, about 8 km (5 miles) from Aqrab, suffered a massacre of more than 100 Sunnis last May, in which more than half of the victims were children.

“We don’t believe there was a massacre (in Aqrab) but we think there were a number of hostages being held by the rebels. Clashes began when rebels started shelling a shabbiha checkpoint,” he said by Skype. “Now the phone lines seem to be down in Aqrab so that’s all we know.”

Others in the opposition blamed Assad’s forces for the attack, which they said involved the shelling of a house in which at least 200 Alawites were hiding.

A rebel who spoke to Reuters by telephone said fighters had clashed for four days with the army in Aqrab, some 30 km (20 miles) north of Syria’s third city of Homs. Rebels had surrounded one building and accused pro-Assad militias, known as shabbiha, of using residents hiding there as human shields.

“There were 200 people inside and we called on the residents to leave, but the shabbiha held some women and children by gunpoint. Eventually talks fell apart and the government shelled the building,” said the rebel, who called himself Maysar.

Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority has mostly led the uprising against Assad, and that has caused friction with minorities such as the Alawites, who have largely stood by the president.

With the circumstances of the attack still murky, it risks sparking a fresh wave of sectarian bloodshed in the region of Syria where three massacres of Sunnis were reported in the past year. There have been many reports of kidnappings and revenge killings between Sunnis and Alawites in the region.

Wounded children, apparently Alawites from Aqrab, appeared at an opposition field hospital in the town of al-Houla, where they were interviewed by rebels in videos published on YouTube.

The three young boys interviewed said they and at least 200 other people had been hiding with shabbiha, but did not say if they were hiding from government shelling or rebel attack.

“We were inside the house with shabbiha, they said they were protecting us from the rebels. The rebels started telling us come out, no one will hurt you,” said Mohamed Judl, a young boy covered in a blanket, shivering as he was interviewed by an activist at the clinic. “The shabbiha wouldn’t let us leave.”

Reporting by Mariam Karouny and Erika Solomon; Editing by Rosalind Russell