BEIRUT (AP) — 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 on 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." He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.
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.
The claim could not be independently verified.
Twenty-eight journalists were killed in Syria in 2012, prompting the Committee to Protect Journalists to name Syria the most dangerous country in the world to work in last year.
The Haswiyeh assault, as described by several activists to The Associated Press, bore a resemblance to the attack last May on the nearby area of Houla that killed 108 people and drew international condemnation of the Assad regime.
The opposition believes the mass killings that have occurred mostly in overwhelmingly Sunni villages that lie near main routes into the Alawite sect's coastal strip are meant to lay the groundwork for a breakaway enclave.
"Time and again, the regime has used the Alawite community in Homs to implement its sectarian projects," local opposition activist Mohammad Raad said.
Sunnis compromise the majority of Syria's 23 million people but have long complained of discrimination at the hands of the Alawite Assad dynasty.
The uprising against Assad erupted in March 2011 as the so-called wave of Arab Spring revolutions was sweeping the Middle East. It quickly evolved into a civil war as the opposition took up arms against a regime crackdown. The U.N. says at least 60,000 people have been killed in the conflict.
Haswiyeh is controlled by government forces, but activists said many of its residents have sons in the Free Syrian Army, the main rebel group fighting to topple Assad's forces.
"This is a purely sectarian attack meant to punish the rebels by targeting their families," said Abu Yazan, an opposition activist speaking via Skype from Houla. Rebels and government troops are known to have clashed in the area around Haswiyeh earlier this week.
There were conflicting reports on the death toll, as is often the case in Syria where information is limited, although all the activists agreed the victims appeared to all be Sunnis.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said 106 people were killed in the two-day rampage, with some "burnt inside their homes and others killed with knives" and other weapons. It also cited reports that "whole families were executed, one of them made up of 32 members."
Homs-based activist Youssef al-Homsi said at least 100 people were killed in Haswiyeh. He sent via Skype a list of 100 names of those killed, including entire families and the individual names of 15 women and 10 children. Al-Homsi also said locals reported that many of the attackers came from the nearby village of Mazraa, which he said is predominantly Shiite.
A third opposition activist in Homs said he had collected the names of 50 people killed, but added others were still missing. It was not possible to confirm the activist reports or reconcile their figures.
Elsewhere in Syria Thursday, activists reported air raids in the suburbs of the capital and clashes in the town of Beit Saham near the international airport outside Damascus. They also said an air raid killed at least 15 people in the town of Kfar Nabouedeh in the central province of Hama.
State-run news agency SANA, meanwhile, said gunmen killed Walid al-Abboud, the brother of lawmaker Khaled al-Abboud. The 49-year-old engineer was gunned down in front of his house in the Damascus suburb of Qatana as he was leaving for work, it said.
Syrian TV also said troops repelled an attack on the main airport in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour near the border with Iraq.