BEIRUT – Forces loyal to President Bashar Assad swept through a small farming village in central Syria this week, torching houses and shooting and stabbing residents in an attack that killed up to 106 people, including women and children, activists said Thursday.
The assault on Haswiyeh outside the city of Homs took place on Tuesday, but was only coming to light two days later as the scale of the killings became more apparent. The attacks appeared to have sectarian motives and bore a resemblance to the attack last May on the nearby village of Houla that killed 108 people and drew international condemnation of the Assad regime.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll in Haswiyeh at 106, and said some of the dead were "burnt inside their homes while other were killed with knives" and other weapons. It added that there are reports that "whole families were executed, one of them made up of 32 members."
Youssef al-Homsi, an activist based in Homs, also said at least 100 people were killed in Haswiyeh. He sent The Associated Press via Skype a list of 100 names said to have been killed. In addition to whole families, the list included individual names of 15 women and 10 children.
Omar Idilbi of the Local Coordination Committees activist group put the death toll at 37, but said the figure was from Wednesday and that more bodies have been found since then.
It was not possible to confirm the activist reports because of severe reporting restrictions in Syria.
A government official in Damascus flatly denied the reports of carnage, saying no such killings took place in the area at all. He said "the army protects civilians and their properties," and accused rebels of using civilians as "human shields. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.
However, the pro-government daily Al-Watan reported Thursday that Syrian troops advanced in the countryside of Homs "cleansing the villages of Haswiyeh and Dweir as well as their fields" from gunmen. It did not elaborate.
Rebels and government troops are known to have clashed in the area around Haswiyeh earlier this week. Rebels still control several neighborhoods in Homs, Syria's third-largest city, as well as other areas in the region. The city and surrounding countryside have been hit by heavy fighting since shortly after the country's crisis began in March 2011. The U.N. says at least 60,000 people have been killed in the conflict.
The Observatory and al-Homsi said all of the dead appeared to be Sunni Muslims, suggesting that the killings may have been sectarian in nature. Al-Homsi also said locals reported that many of the attackers came from the nearby village of Mazraa, which he said is predominantly Shiite.
Sunnis make the majority of Syria's 23 million people, while Assad and most of the top officials in his regime belong to the minority Alawite sect, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam.
The opposition accuses Alawite militiamen loyal to Assad of trying to carve out a breakaway enclave for themselves by driving out local Sunnis, killing entire families and threatening anybody who stays behind. They say killings in overwhelmingly Sunni villages close to Alawite communities are meant to lay the groundwork for such an enclave.
An amateur video posted online showed five women surround by children as they sat on the floor describing what happened in Haswiyeh.
"They entered homes, slaughtered women and children then burnt them," said one of the veiled women holding a young boy. "They slaughtered members of the same families then turned the diesel heaters on them."
"We did not fight and we had no gunmen. We are all workers trying to make a living," she said angrily. She added that some homes were robbed as the soldiers were looking for money and jewelry.
Another video showed a burnt room with what appeared to be two charred bodies on the floor. A man could be heard weeping in the background. The caption says the video is from Haswiyeh.
The videos appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting on the events depicted.
Elsewhere in Syria, activists reported violence in different parts of the country Thursday including fighting in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in Damascus. The Observatory also reported air raids in the capital's suburbs, which have witnessed heavy clashes between troops and rebels in recent weeks.
The Observatory and the LCC also reported clashes in the town of Beit Saham, just south of the capital and near the city's international airport, and that an air raid killed at least 15 people in the town of Kfar Nabouedeh in the central province of Hama.
State-run TV said troops repelled an attack on the main airport in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour near the border with Iraq.
It said clashes in the northern town of Ras al-Ayn near the Turkish border continued Thursday between rebels and members of the government-leaning Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD. The Observatory said at least eight rebels and one PYD fighter were killed.