BEIRUT – Gunmen loyal to President Bashar Assad swept through a mainly Sunni farming village in central Syria this week, torching houses and killing more than 100 people, including women and children, opposition activists said Thursday.
The reported slayings fueled accusations that pro-government militiamen are trying to drive majority Sunnis out of areas near main routes to the coast to ensure control of an Alawite enclave as the country’s civil war increasingly takes on sectarian overtones.
Activists said the attackers were from nearby areas dominated by Shiite Muslims and allied Alawites. Assad and most of the top officials in his regime belong to the minority Alawite sect, a Shiite offshoot.
The events in Haswiyeh, an impoverished farming area on the edge of Homs, unfolded Tuesday and Wednesday, but only came to light Thursday as the reported scale of the killings became apparent.
An amateur video posted online showed veiled women sitting on the floor surrounded by children as they described a horrific scene of gunmen killing people and burning bodies.
“They slaughtered members of the same families, then turned the diesel heaters on them,” one of the women said, adding that some homes were robbed of money and jewelry as well. “We did not fight and we had no gunmen. We are all workers trying to make a living.”
Another video showed a charred room with what appeared to be two blackened bodies on the floor. A man could be heard weeping in the background. The caption said the video is from Haswiyeh.
The videos appeared genuine and corresponded to other Associated Press reporting on the events depicted, although exact details of what happened were unclear and could not be independently verified because of restrictions on independent media.
A government official in Damascus denied the reports, saying no such killings took place in the area and accusing rebels of using civilians as “human shields.”
However, the pro-government daily newspaper Al-Watan reported Thursday that Syrian troops advanced in the countryside of Homs “cleansing the villages of Haswiyeh and Dweir as well as their fields” from gunmen. It did not elaborate.
The attacks come amid a spike in violence in Syria and a particularly bloody week.
Activists on Thursday night said a foreign journalist died while covering clashes between rebels and regime forces in the northern city of Aleppo. The Aleppo Media Center, a network of anti-regime activists in the city, said the journalist was shot by a regime sniper positioned on the roof of the Aleppo central prison near the Museilmeh district.