The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights yesterday said at least 60 people, mostly Shiite fighters but also ordinary villagers, were killed in the village of Hatla in the oil-rich province of Deir el-Zour that borders Iraq.
Most of the armed rebels in Syria are from the country’s Sunni majority, while president Bashar al-Assad has retained support among the minorities, including his own Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, along with Christians and Shiites.
The Syrian blogger Hassan Hassan, a columnist for the National newspaper in Abu Dhabi, reported at least two of the rebel groups involved in the attack on Tuesday as Jund al-Rahman and as-Sadiq al-Ameen.
He wrote that the people of Hatla were mainly converts to Shia Islam from the Sunni strand of the faith, with many having done so in the late 1990s. The surrounding area is predominantly Sunni.
In one video of the aftermath of the attack, posted online yesterday, one of the rebel fighters said Kuwaiti Shiites were behind the conversion of the village. He sent a message to Kuwaiti Sunni to exterminate all Shiites in Kuwait, otherwise “they are responsible in front of God” for failing to protect their religion.
Other amateur videos released by activists showed rebels standing in front of burning homes captioned, “Setting fire to the houses of Shiites.” The video shows at least two bodies, one of them of a bearded man.
An activist based in Deir el-Zour said the rebel attack was in retaliation for an attack on Monday by Shiites from Hatla that killed four rebels.
Thaer al-Deiry, who used his nickname for fear of government retaliation, said via Skype that rebels launched a counterattack on Tuesday. He said 150 Shiites from the village fled across the Euphrates River to the government-held village of Jafra.
In Damascus, a government official said the rebels “carried out a massacre against villagers in which older people and children were killed”.
The fighting in Deir el-Zour came a week after Syrian troops, backed by Lebanon’s militant Shiite Hezbollah, captured the strategic town of Qusair near the Lebanese border after nearly three weeks of battles in which dozens of troops, rebels and Hezbollah members were killed.
Hezbollah’s involvement in the Qusair battle underlined its commitment in support of Assad’s regime and edged the civil war in Syria closer to a regional sectarian conflict pitting the Middle East’s Iranian-backed Shiite axis against Sunnis.
Radwan Ziadeh, a leading Syrian opposition figure in exile, described the attack on the village as a “dangerous development” triggered by Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria.
“It also shows the revolution is taking a sectarian angle. This will have effects on the long term. There are dangers that the fanatics from both sides, Shiite and Sunni, will have the upper hand,” Mr Ziadeh said.