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Dozens killed in Sunni area

| Thursday, May 2, 2013, 10:03 p.m.

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.

There was heavy fighting in Bayda that left at least six government troops dead and more than 20 wounded, Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman 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.

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.

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