(AP) Sunnis flee Syrian city after reports of killings
By BASSEM MROUE
Thousands of Sunni Muslims fled a Syrian coastal town Saturday, a day after reports circulated that nearly a dozen people including children were killed by pro-government gunmen in the areas, activists said.
Elsewhere, President Bashar Assad made a rare public appearance in the capital Damascus and as Israeli officials confirmed the country’s air force carried out a strike against Syria, saying it targeted a shipment of advanced missiles bound for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
The violence in the coastal region shows the sectarian nature of the 2-year conflict that has killed tens of thousands and sent more than a million Syrians as refugees to neighboring countries.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said around 4,000 people were fleeing from the predominantly Sunni southern parts of the Mediterranean city of Banias amid fears pro-government gunmen “might commit a massacre.” It said at least 10 people, including children, were killed in the city on Friday and the number could be as high at 60.
The Observatory said security forces were checking people’s identity cards and asking them to return to Banias so that the situation could appear normal. It said those fleeing were mostly heading to the city of Tartus to the south and the town of Jableh just north of Banias.
The reported exodus from Banias came after activists said Friday that regime troops and gunmen from nearby Alawite areas beat, stabbed and shot at least 50 people in the Sunni Muslim village of Bayda, near Banias.
Syria’s crisis, that began in March 2011 with pro-democracy protests and later turned into a civil war that has killed an estimated 70,000 people, has largely broken along sectarian lines.
The Sunni majority forms the backbone of the rebellion, while Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, anchors the regime’s security services and the military’s officer corps. Other minorities, such as Christians, largely support Assad or stand on the sidelines, worried that the regime’s fall would bring about a more Islamist rule.
Syria’s mountainous coastal region is the Alawite heartland, although it is also dotted with Sunni villages
An amateur video released by the Observatory Saturday showed a man and at least three children dead inside a room. A baby had burned legs and a body stained with blood. Next to him was a young girl whose face had been deformed after apparently being hit with sharp metal.
The videos appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting on the events depicted.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory, identified the man killed as Haitham Sahyouni. He said Sahyouni was found dead along with his three children, his brother Hamid and mother Watfa. He said it was not clear if Sahyouni was an opposition supporter.
Also Saturday, Syrian state TV said President Bashar Assad visited a Damascus campus, his second public appearance in a week.
The report said Assad inaugurated a statue dedicated to “martyrs” from Syrian universities who died in the country’s uprising and civil war.
A photograph posted on Assad’s Facebook page showed him surrounded by bodyguards as young men, who appeared to be students, waved at him.
Assad normally appears rarely in public. But on Wednesday, Assad visited a Damascus power station to mark May Day, according to the media.
The Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, reported violence in other areas including the Qusair region in the central province of Homs near the border with Lebanon.
Meanwhile, Israeli officials confirmed that an early Friday airstrike against Syria was targeting a shipment of advanced missiles believed to be bound for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, an ally of Assad’s regime.
It was the second Israeli strike this year against Syria and the latest salvo in its long-running effort to disrupt Hezbollah’s quest to build an arsenal capable of defending against Israel’s air force and spreading destruction inside the Jewish state.