DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — A suicide bomber detonated an explosives-laden truck in a central, Shiite Syrian village on Monday, state media reported, killing six in the latest attack to underscore the growing sectarian nature of the country's three-year-old conflict.
Three children and a woman were among the dead in the early morning bombing at a school in Sabtiyeh, near the city of Homs, official news agency SANA said, adding that some 40 others were wounded. Footage aired on state television showed panicked residents rushing to ambulances carrying wounded children.
"What did these children do to be killed?" a man angrily shouted.
No group claimed responsibility for the blast, but such bombings are the hallmark of al-Qaida linked groups who have joined Syrian rebels battling to overthrow the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad.
Syria's war began as mostly peaceful demonstrations against Assad's rule, but turned into an armed rebellion after government troops violently suppressed demonstrations. The country is formed of a mosaic of different sects, and the conflict has largely split it along sectarian lines. Rebels are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims, while Christians and other Muslim sects have for the most part either stood with Assad's government or remained neutral or involved in peaceful activism.
Hard-line Sunni brigades, some formed of foreign fighters, have powerful fighting units. Shiite fighters from Lebanon's Hezbollah militia and from Iraq have shored up Assad's forces, in part to protect their minority and holy sites in Syria.
All warring sides have used sectarian incitement and have blockaded civilians in villages seen as loyal to their adversaries.
But attacks specifically targeting civilians of other sects are infrequent, said Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the uprising through a network of activists on the ground.
Abdurrahman said he believed the Shiite village was targeted because of its sectarian affiliation since no fighting had been reported there previously, adding that it is known for having good relations with nearby Sunni communities.
Syria's Shiite Muslims form a tiny minority scattered in villages, making them particularly vulnerable.
Syrian rebel groups have experienced a series of military setbacks lately.
On Monday, the Observatory reported that Syrian Kurdish fighters wrested nearly 20 villages from the al-Qaida group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant from an area straddling the Turkish border after days of clashes. Syria's long-repressed ethnic Kurdish minority has used the conflict to assert more control over areas they dominate, with the tacit backing of Assad's government who sees them as a bulwark against the rebels.
And late Sunday evening prominent Syrian rebel Col. Abdul-Jabbar al-Akidi said he was stepping down leadership of Aleppo province's rebel military council.
Also Monday, Syria's antiquities chief said thieves specializing in the country's artifacts had robbed a storehouse containing mosaics and potteries in the rebel-held area of Raqqa.
Mamoun Abdul-Karim said the theft occurred Saturday at a storehouse of the Herqla archaeological site in the northeast province of al-Raqqa. Abdul-Karim said the artifacts were stolen at gunpoint as villagers looked on. He said the thieves sped to neighboring Turkey.
Syria has a rich archaeological heritage, including remains of the Greco-Roman civilization, grand Islamic dynasties and the crusades. Ancient castles and markets have been bombed and destroyed during the conflict, while an unknowable number of artifacts have been stolen by thieves taking advantage of the chaos.
With additional reporting by Diaa Hadid in Beirut.