Syrian troops backed by pro-government gunmen swept into a Sunni village in the mountains near the Mediterranean coast on Thursday, killing dozens of people, including women and children, and torching homes, activists said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that at least 50 people — and possibly as many as 100 — were killed in the violence in Bayda, a village outside the city of Banias. It cited witnesses who said some of the dead were killed with knives or blunt objects and that dozens of villagers were still missing.
Syria's civil war has largely split the country down religious lines, and the violence in Bayda appeared to have sectarian overtones. The village is primarily inhabited by Sunni Muslims, who dominate the country's rebel movement, while most of the surrounding villages are home to members of President Bashar Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
With the conflict now in its third year, the sectarian divide in the country is worsening. There has been heavy fighting raging between Sunni and Shiite villages in the area of Qusair, near the Lebanese border. Islamic extremists who have joined the rebels have destroyed Christian liquor stores, and sometimes refer to their dead adversaries with derogatory names insulting their sects.
Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman said there was heavy fighting in Bayda early Thursday that left at least six government troops dead and more than 20 wounded. He said regime troops backed by gunmen from nearby Alawite villages returned in the afternoon and eventually overran Bayda.
In the aftermath, telephone and Internet service to the village was cut and the area remained under regime control, making it impossible to verify the day's final death toll, Abdul-Rahman said.
But if confirmed, the violence would be the latest in a string of alleged mass killings in Syria's bloody civil war. Last month, activists said government troops killed more than 100 people as they seized two rebel-held suburbs of Damascus.
Some 70,000 people have been killed and thousands of others maimed, injured or missing in Syria since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011, according to the United Nations. Both the U.N. Human Rights Council and the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria have published multiple reports documenting crimes committed during the civil war, including the slaughter of more than 100 civilians in the central region of Houla last May blamed on pro-regime militiamen.
The conflict's humanitarian toll has accelerated as the fighting on the ground has grown more intense, and neither side appears willing to find a political solution at the moment. The rebels are trying to expand upon their gains in the past year that have put them in control of much of northern Syria as well as a growing foothold in the south along the border with Jordan.
The regime, meanwhile, has pushed an offensive to shore up its hold on Damascus and the corridor leading from the capital through the central city of Homs and on to the mountainous Mediterranean coastal area, which is the Alawite heartland.
The government made gains Thursday to secure its grip on Homs, seizing control of the Wadi Sayeh district in the heart of the city, the Observatory said. The neighborhood is strategically important for the Assad regime as its forces try to dislodge opposition fighters from several central neighborhoods that have been under rebel control for more than a year.
The regime pounded rebel-held districts with artillery and carried out at least one airstrike on a residential neighborhood, killing seven people, four of them children, according to the Observatory.
Regaining full control of Homs would be a psychological blow to the opposition, which considers the city a symbol of Syria's uprising, inspired by other Arab Spring revolts against authoritarian rulers around the Middle East. The city, the third largest in the nation, was the scene of massive street protests against Assad's regime in the early months of the uprising. Since then, it has seen some of the worst urban warfare of the conflict.
While Assad's forces advanced in Homs, they suffered a setback in the northern city of Aleppo, where rebels overran the headquarters of the government's anti-terrorism forces, according to the Aleppo Media Center activist group.
The building is located near the central prison where many of regime opponents, activists and their family members are believed to be held. Rebel fighters have for weeks battled government troops in the area in an attempt to storm the facility and free the prisoners.
In recent weeks, government forces have been on a counter offensive to reverse rebel gains in and around Aleppo, where the opposition controls entire neighborhoods and much of the countryside surrounding the city.
Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Barbara Surk in Beirut contributed to this report.