Government forces continue to round up Syrians, opposition groups say
A major opposition umbrella group, known as the Syrian National Coalition, charged that troops and pro-government militiamen executed at least 150 people, including women and children, Thursday in the village of Bayda, in the coastal region of Tartus. The coalition labeled the killings "genocide" and said corpses had been burned. Other opposition accounts spoke of heavy bombardment and mass arrests.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition group, said government sweeps continued in the area Friday and that loyalist forces were taking away many residents.
Opposition activists called for the Red Cross and other international organizations to head to the area in a bid to stop the violence. United Nations observers who once responded to reports of mass killings in Syria withdrew from the country last summer, leaving a monitoring void in the violence-wracked nation.
Syrian government officials said there was a major military sweep in the coastal zone targeting "lairs of the terrorists."
The official Syria Arab News Agency said an unspecified number of "terrorists" - the government's standard term for armed rebels - had been killed during operations in Bayda and parts of the neighboring city of Banias. Troops captured "depots of weaponry and ammunition," including machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and pump-action shotguns and explosive materials, the official news agency said.
There was no independent confirmation of the alleged violence. The government restricts media access inside Syria.
The allegations in Tartus province carried strong sectarian overtones. The region's population is largely Alawite, the minority sect of President Bashar Assad and many of his major security chiefs. The Tartus region is considered a stronghold of support for the Assad government.
But the alleged massacre is said to have occurred in districts where most residents are Sunni Muslims, the majority in Syria and the spearhead of the revolt against Assad's rule.
The mostly Sunni residents of Bayda were early backers of the uprising, opposition activists said. Anti-government protesters took to village streets two years ago, clashing with security forces, according to opposition advocates.
It was not clear whether Thursday's military sweeps were part of a broader offensive in the region. There has been speculation that Assad and his security chiefs could retreat to the coastal zone should Damascus, the capital, fall. But the government still maintains firm control of Damascus and of the strategic highway that leads north from there to the embattled city of Homs and then west to the Mediterranean.
In recent weeks, government forces have pushed back insurgents in both the Damascus and Homs areas, dealing a setback to the rebels. Opposition forces have called on outside allies, including the United States, to step up aid to anti-Assad forces.
More than 70,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict, according to the U.N. Diplomatic efforts to create a cease-fire have failed to halt the carnage.
(Times staff writer McDonnell reported from Beirut and special correspondent Bulos from Amman, Jordan.)
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