BEIRUT (Reuters) - A roadside bomb killed at least 14 members of President Bashar al-Assad’s minority Alawite on Thursday in the central Syrian province of Homs, an opposition monitoring group said.
The blast targeted two buses near the Alawite village of Jabourin, 13 km (8 miles) north of Homs city, said Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Alawites are an offshoot sect of Shi‘ite Islam who mostly support Assad and have been increasingly targeted by hardline fighters among the Sunni Muslim-dominated opposition in the 2-1/2 year revolt against the president.
The northern suburbs of Homs, which Assad’s forces consider vital to securing their hold from Damascus to the president’s coastal Alawite stronghold, have suffered heavy shelling and clashes between government forces and rebel fighters for several months.
Citing a source in a local military hospital, Abdelrahman told Reuters that nine of the victims in Thursday’s explosion were civilians while the others may have belonged to the National Defence Forces, a loyalist paramilitary group
He said that clashes broke out between rebel fighters and members of the NDF after the explosion.
The Britain-based Observatory, which has a network of sources across Syria, cited activists and residents in its report.
Sectarian violence has increasingly overtaken a conflict that began as peaceful protests against four decades of Assad family rule.
Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority has largely supported the uprising and Islamist groups among the rebels have increasingly threatened Alawites in retaliation for the killing of Sunnis.
The sectarian dimension of the conflict has drawn in foreign fighters from neighboring countries. Hundreds of Sunni militants have entered Syria to fight alongside the rebels.
Meanwhile, Lebanese Shi‘ite militant group Hezbollah and Shi‘ite militia from Iraq have sent men to fight alongside Assad’s forces, angering Sunnis across the region.
Reporting by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Alison Williams