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.
Other activists blamed Assad’s forces for the attack, which they said involved the shelling of a house in which at least 200 Alawites were hiding.
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 assault on Alawites in the 20-month-old Syrian uprising.
A rebel who spoke to Reuters by telephone said fighters had clashed with the army in Aqrab for four days. 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 a 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, a few kilometers (miles) away, where they were interviewed by rebels in videos published on YouTube.
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