BEIRUT (AP) — Extremist Islamic rebels who overran a village in central Syria populated by the Alawite minority have killed at least 40 people, activists said Monday.
The report on the attack on the village of Maan in the central Hama province came as the Syrian Red Crescent was trying to get a cease-fire in the besieged city of Homs extended so it could deliver more aid and evacuate more people from the area.
Half of the victims in the attack, which occurred on Sunday, were civilians, including women, while the other half were village fighters defending their homes, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Syrian state media described the attack as a "massacre" perpetrated by terrorists, a term the government uses for rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad.
Islamic extremists, including foreign fighters and Syrian rebels who have taken up hard-line al-Qaida-style ideologies , have played an increasingly prominent role among the rebel fighters fighting forces loyal to Assad, who is a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
The raid on Maan is likely to bolster efforts by the government delegation to convey their narrative at the Geneva peace talks that the three-year uprising to overthrow Assad is dominated by al-Qaida extremists. The extremists see Alawites as apostates who should be killed.
Rami Abdurrahman, who runs the Observatory, said Islamic fighters overran Maan after Alawite villagers lobbed mortar shells on the rebels using nearby roads. There have also been heavy clashes for weeks between hard-line rebels and Assad loyalists in the nearby community of Morek, Abdurrahman said.
A video uploaded by the rebels of the Jund al-Aqsa Brigade, which said it overran the village, showed them waving a black jihadi flag over the village rooftops as bearded, grinning men looted homes. The video corresponded with The Associated Press' reporting of the event.
Jund al-Aqsa Brigade, however, did not claim the killings and no other extremist group in Syria did.
In Geneva, Syrian government and opposition delegates started a fresh round of U.N.-brokered peace talks on Monday. The first face-to-face meetings adjourned 10 days ago having achieved little beyond getting the warring sides into the same room.
Prospects for common ground appear unlikely as the two sides continue to disagree on the core issue of Assad's future. Fighting has escalated since the first round, with violence disrupting food distribution meant to ease the plight of civilians in Homs and near Damascus.
Khaled Erksoussi, the head of operations for the SRC, said Monday that there were about 200 families, mostly Christian, who wanted to leave two rebel-held districts of the city, which have been sealed off by Assad's forces for more than a year.
Erksoussi told The Associated Press Monday that 690 people — mostly women, children and elderly men — have been evacuated from the rebel-held districts of Homs since Friday, when a U.N.-brokered truce went into effect. Aid workers also delivered food parcels, medicines and flour despite heavy shelling that targeted the aid convoys.
"We managed to get some food and aid in during this pause, but not the quantity we had hoped for," Erksoussi said Monday over the phone from Damascus.
He said the U.N. is talking to the government and the rebels about extending the cease-fire.
Erksoussi said 200 families in two central Homs districts — Bustan Diwan and Old Hamdiyeh — had wanted to leave but could not reach the exit points where SRC buses were waiting Sunday just hours before the three-day truce expired early Monday. He said people, many of them elderly and sick, would have had to walk across the front lines for at least half hour to reach the evacuation point, and that was impossible.
"We are ready. We are hoping that the cease-fire will be extended and respected to get them out," Erksoussi said. "Aid should be allowed to get inside unhindered, and then those people who choose to leave should be allowed to do so."
Homs was one of the first areas to rise up against Assad in 2011 and has been particularly hard hit by the war.
Over the past year, the government regained control over most of the city, except for neighborhoods in the historic center. Forces loyal to Assad have blockaded those parts for over a year, causing widespread hunger and suffering.
Last week's cease-fire was arranged by the U.N. mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, who during the Geneva talks last month urged Syria's warring sides to help about 2,500 civilians trapped in the ancient, rebel-held quarters known as Old Homs.
Syria's uprising began with largely peace protests against Assad's government in March 2011 but later descended into an armed uprising and a full-blown civil war with sectarian overtones. More than 130,000 people have been killed, activists say.