BEIRUT (AP) — A rural patch of north Syria has been shaken by a series of tit-for-tat, sectarian kidnappings, anti-regime activists said Saturday, highlighting how much the country's civil war has enflamed tensions between different religious groups.
While all activists agreed that kidnappings had spiked in recent days between armed men in neighboring Shiite and Sunni Muslim villages, reports of the numbers kidnapped by both sides ranged from a few dozen to more than 300.
The kidnappings and the raw feelings they have provoked bode ill for the chances of reconciliation between Syrians, many of whom have come to see the civil war as either a sacred battle to advance their faith or a mortal struggle for the survival of their sect.
Since Syria's crisis began with protests calling for political reforms in March 2011, it has gradually grown more sectarian. Most of the rebels who have taken up arms to topple the regime of President Bashar Assad are from Syria's Sunni majority. Assad himself is an Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and has heavily stocked his security forces with fellow Alawites and Shiites.
The rise of Islamic fundamentalists among the rebels makes many among Syria's minorities — including Alawites, Shiites, Christians, Armenians and others — fear that a rebel victory could leave them with no place in Syria.
The spate of kidnappings in recent days in the northern Idlib province, which lies along the border with Turkey, provides one example of how Syria's crisis has raised the specter of increasingly sectarian violence.
Local activists said Sunni-Shiite tensions were rare in the area before Syria's crisis began, and that residents of the only two Shiite villages, Fua and Kifarya, moved freely through the constellation of Sunni villages around them.
Tensions rose, however, after the crisis began and opposition members armed themselves to fight back against Assad's harsh crackdown on dissent. Most of the Sunni villages embraced the uprising, while the Shiites stood by the regime. Many say the government armed its supporters to help fight the rebels.
Kidnappings grew common last year, as rebels set up checkpoints to catch Shiites they accused of being "shabiha," or pro-government militiamen, and Shiite gunmen did the same to capture rebels they considered terrorists. Elders from both communities remained in contact, arranging prisoner exchanges to avoid violence.
Most agree that the recent kidnappings started when unknown gunmen stopped a bus carrying Shiite civilians and kidnapped all its passengers on Thursday. Many of the passengers were women and children and their kidnapping was seen as a harsh escalation, especially in the conservative culture of north Syria.
"Before, it was all militiamen catching rebels. It was all part of the war," activist Bahaideen Abdel-Razaq in the village of Sarmeen said via Skype. "But kidnapping of women and children had never happened before."
Soon after, Shiite gunmen began kidnapping residents of nearby Sunni villages, he said, stopping public busses carrying them on rural highways or on their way into the province's regional capital, which is still under regime control.
Many details remain unclear, such as how many people have been kidnapped from the two sides.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 40 Shiites, including women and children, were on the bus when they were captured by unknown gunmen. Since then, Shiite gunmen have kidnapped more than 300 people from nearby Sunni villages, the group said.
Anti-regime activists reached in four nearby villages suggested the number was smaller. Two said no more than 10 people had been taken from their villages. About 15 were missing from Saraqib, and as many as 40 had been taken from Sarmeen, Abdel-Razaq said.
Some activists doubted the story of the bus disappearing.
An activist from the nearby village of Binnish accused the regime of concocting the story.
"We deal with armed groups all over the region and no one has any information" on who kidnapped the bus, said Ahmed, who spoke on condition that only his first name be published to protect his family. "If this is true, give us the names of those who have been kidnapped."
The Observatory said gunmen from Fua refused to state the bus's make and color — "an issue that raises suspicion," it said.
The Associated Press was unable to reach residents of the Shiite villages. A message sent by a reporter to a Facebook page for Fua received an unnamed response.
"We will liberate our prisoners by force and we seek help from no one," it said. "We know how to fight, be victorious and take revenge."
It was unclear who wrote the message.
What is clear is that most Sunni activists and rebels expect an armed showdown between the two communities. Some say they see no place for Shiites in the area's future.
"We have warned them that everything in Fua is a target and that everyone who wants to save himself from the problems should leave," said activist Maher Abdel-Ghani, who often works with Islamic extremist rebel battalions.
"God willing, we'll soon liberate the whole area and there will be nothing left called Fua or Kifarya," he said. "Those two villages will be erased because they have harmed us a lot."
Also Saturday, a power outage plunged Damascus and much of southern Syria into darkness, the state news agency reported, quoting Electricity Minister Imad Khamis.
The blackout affected Syria's capital and the southern provinces of Daraa and Sweida, which abut the Jordanian border.
An Associated Press reporter in Damascus reported dark streets across the capital. A fuel shortage makes it hard for residents to run backup generators.
A similar blackout struck the same areas on Jan. 20. The government blamed that outage on a rebel attack, and power was restored to most areas the following day.
The Syrian capital's 2.5 million residents have grown used to frequent power cuts as the country's conflict has damaged infrastructure and sapped the government's finances.
The U.N. says nearly 70,000 people have been killed in Syria's conflict since March 2011.
Associated Press writer Albert Aji contributed reporting from Damascus, Syria.