By Oliver Holmes
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Warplanes bombed a village in Syria's north overnight in an apparent effort by President Bashar al-Assad to prevent rebels fighting him from advancing on communities in the stronghold region of his Alawite sect.
Assad's forces are on the defensive in his family's home province of Latakia, and recent rebel gains across northern Syria, including a military air base captured last week in Aleppo province, have further loosened his grip on the country.
Assad controls much of southern and central Syria, while insurgents hold northern areas near the Turkish border and along the Euphrates valley towards Iraq. The northeast corner of the pivotal Arab state is now an increasingly autonomous Kurdish region. (http://link.reuters.com/puw22v)
The mainly Sunni Muslim insurgents are battling to overthrow Assad, whose minority Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, in a civil war which erupted two years ago when mainly peaceful protests against his rule were put down with force.
As many as 20 people were killed in the air strikes on the village of Salma, including 10 civilians, six Syrian fighters and four foreign fighters, the anti-Assad Syrian Observatory for Human Rights group said on Saturday.
Amateur video footage posted on the Internet showed a large apartment block with all its outside walls blown out. Men, some in military fatigues, were seen loading bodies onto a pickup truck.
Salma is a Sunni village in the Jabal Akrad mountain range which overlooks the Mediterranean. Salma-based rebel forces comprised of mainly Islamist brigades, including two al Qaeda-linked groups, have killed hundreds in offensives this month and have seized several Alawite settlements.
Rebels captured the religiously-mixed village of Kharratah two miles (three km) south of Salma, video posted online by rebels on Friday showed. The insurgents could be seen walking around the village, surrounded by green fields and orchards. No civilians could be seen and houses appeared to be empty.
ALAWITE REGIONAL STRONGHOLD AT STAKE
Assad has deployed extra forces in the region and the air raids reflected an urgent priority to protect the main region of his Alawite sect - 12 percent of Syria's 21 million people.
The president's forces have also been pushing to retake lost ground in neighboring Aleppo province, where insurgents have made significant headway over the past few weeks.
After the rebel capture last month of Khan al-Assal, a town southwest of Aleppo city, activists said on Saturday soldiers killed 12 civilians, including a woman, in a nearby town.
The government accuses rebels of executing 123 people in Khan al-Assal and activists say the killing in Tabara al-Sakhani, 12 miles to the south, could have been retaliatory.
Rebel-controlled districts of Aleppo city, once Syria's commercial hub but now partly reduced to rubble by the conflict, were also bombarded by army artillery, the Observatory said.
More than 100,000 people have been killed in the 28-month conflict and 1.7 million Syrians have been forced to flee to neighboring countries, the United Nations says.
Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for more than four decades, has relied on Alawite-led army units and security forces from the start, but has turned increasingly to loyalist militia armed and funded by Damascus to fight the rebels.
He has also enjoyed staunch support from Middle East Shi'ite powerhouse Iran, neighboring Lebanon's Shi'ite Hezbollah movement and the Assads' longtime arms supplier Russia.
His fragmented foes have received little military aid from Western powers that want Assad removed but are wary of the growing presence of radical Islamists in the rebel ranks.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich and Sonya Hepinstall)