BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels have battled Shiites in a village in the country's east, killing over 60 people including civilians, activists said Wednesday. The fighting highlights the increasingly sectarian nature of the country's civil war.
Activists say the dead were mostly pro-government militiamen, without specifying whether the noncombatants had been killed deliberately or were caught in the crossfire. But a Syrian government official denounced the attack on the Shiite-section of Sunni-majority Hatla village as a "massacre" of civilians.
Also Wednesday, a Syrian government helicopter fired at least two missiles at a border town in Lebanon, lightly wounding one person in the latest incident of violence spilling across the border, officials and residents said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 60 people, mostly Shiite fighters but also ordinary villagers, were killed on Tuesday in 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 Assad has retained core support among the minorities, including his own Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, along with Christians and Shiites.
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.
The videos appeared genuine and corresponded to other Associated Press reporting on the events depicted.
Thousands of rebels took part in the attack and at least 10 of them were killed in the fighting, said the Observatory.
An activist based in Deir el-Zour said the rebel attack was in retaliation for an attack Monday by Shiites from Hatla that killed four rebels.
Thaer al-Deiry, who identified himself only by his nickname for fear of government retaliation, said via Skype that rebels gathered and launched a counterattack Tuesday. He said some 150 Shiites from the village fled across the Euphrates River to the government-held village of Jafra.
"The situation in the village is quiet and the Free Syrian Army is in full control," al-Deiry said, referring to the rebels. He added that the village had been under opposition control for more than a year but some of its Shiite residents recently started collecting arms apparently to fight along government troops.
In Damascus, a government official said the rebels "carried out a massacre against villagers in which older people and children were killed." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The fighting in Deir el-Zour came a week after Syrian troops, backed by Lebanon's militant Shiite Hezbollah group, captured the strategic town of Qusair near the Lebanese border after nearly three weeks of fierce battles that killed dozens of troops, rebels and Hezbollah members.
Hezbollah's involvement in the Qusair battle underlined the group's 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 that the revolution is taking a sectarian angle. This will have effects on the long-term not only in Syria but also in Lebanon. There are dangers that that the fanatics from both sides, Shiite and Sunni will have the upper hand," Ziadeh said.
Building on its victory in Qusair, the Syrian military has shifted its attention to try to clear rebel-held areas in the province of Homs, a linchpin area linking Damascus with regime strongholds on the Mediterranean coast, and the northern city of Aleppo.
On Wednesday, the Observatory reported heavy clashes in the center of Hom city, mostly in the neighborhood of Wadi Sayeh. The fighting appeared to be an attempt by government forces to separate two main rebel-held areas in the city, Khaldiyeh and the city center.
The state-run news agency SANA said troops killed several gunmen in the town of Talbiseh north of Homs.
The Observatory reported fighting and shelling in the northern Damascus neighborhood of Barzeh, which has witnessed clashes between troops and rebels over the past weeks. It said there were casualties without giving figures.
Meanwhile, a Syrian helicopter violated Lebanese airspace and fired two missiles toward the central square in the village of Arsal, wounding one person, Lebanese military officials said. Residents said three missiles were fired.
The Arsal attack is the latest incident in which Lebanon has been pulled into the war next door. Scores of rebels and civilians who fled from Qusair have taken refuge there.
The town is predominantly Sunni Muslim, and support for the Syrian rebels runs high.
Milhem Hojeiri, a resident, said shrapnel from one of the missiles lightly wounded a schoolteacher in Arsal. He said the town's population has almost doubled in the past two years because of refugees and rebels from Syria who have taken shelter there.
"There is a lot of fear here. The town is fast becoming a casualty of the war in Syria," he said.
The Lebanese officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, did not provide further details on the Arsal attack.
Associated Press writer Albert Aji contributed to this report from Damascus, Syria.