BEIRUT — Rebels have killed dozens of Shiite Muslims in a village in eastern Syria, activists said Wednesday, as the nation’s civil war takes on increasingly sectarian undertones.
About 60 civilians and pro-government fighters were killed Tuesday as rebels stormed the largely Shiite village of Hatla in the oil-rich province of Deir el-Zour near the Iraqi border, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Videos released by the activist group showed rebels boasting of burning the houses of “rejectionists,” a derogatory term for Shiites.
As the conflict enters its third year, it has become increasingly divided along sectarian lines, pitting a largely Sunni opposition against Shiites and Alawites, the offshoot of Shiite Islam to which President Bashar Assad belongs. That shift was evident in the battle for the border town of Qusair this month, where militants from the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah led the offensive with Assad’s troops.
Feeding into a larger Shiite-Sunni struggle in the region, the war is transcending Syria’s borders. In Lebanon on Wednesday, the Lebanese army said a Syrian helicopter fired rockets into the largely Sunni border town of Aarsal, injuring at least two people. The town has supported the Syrian uprising.
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“For the first time, we really feel like we are part of the reality of what is going on in Syria,” said Wafic Khalaf, a member of the town’s municipal council. “People were scared.”
The Syrian government called the killings in Hatla a massacre of civilians, saying that 30 died. Anti-government activists put the toll at 60 and said most of the dead were pro-government militia fighters who had attacked rebels a day earlier. But some of the activists nonetheless condemned the Hatla attack as a destructive act of revenge that showed the powerlessness of moderates among the mostly Sunni rebels to rein in extremists.
What was not in dispute was that several battalions of Sunni rebels, including members of extremist Islamist groups, stormed the village and, in video posted online by anti-government activists, could be seen setting houses on fire as they shouted sectarian slogans, calling Shiites dogs, apostates and infidels.
“This is your end, you dogs,” a man off camera said as he panned across what he said were the corpses of “pug-nosed” Shiites, including one with what appeared to be a gunshot wound in the head.
One video posted by the human-rights group Syrian Observatory shows a group of bearded men carrying black flags.
“We have raised the banner of ‘There Is No God but God’ over the houses of the rejectionist Shiite apostates,” one fighter chanted in another clip as a black cloud billowed above the village and jubilant gunmen brandished black flags often used by the extremist Al Nusra Front and other Islamist fighting groups.
“Here are the jihadists celebrating their storming of the rejectionists’ houses! The Shiite rejectionists!” the fighter added. Some extremist Sunnis refer to Shiites as rejectionists because the sect arose from a group that rejected the early successors of the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century.
The U.S. and other Western nations have been hesitant to arm the outgunned and outmanned rebels because of Sunni jihadi radicals among their ranks.
State Department spokesman Jen Psaki said the U.S. was “appalled by reports that rebels have killed 60 Shia in Hatla village.”
The Syrian conflict began as a popular uprising demanding political rights but gradually has taken on a more sectarian tone. As the conflict became militarized, with the government cracking down on demonstrators, some of its opponents, mostly Sunni army defectors and others, took up arms. Sunni jihadists from across the region also have joined the fight, and extremist groups have been able to count on financing from like-minded private donors, making them increasingly influential on the battlefield.
Shiite fighters from Lebanon and Iraq also have entered Syria to defend Shiite shrines and fight alongside a government they see as protecting their interests.
Sectarian tensions further grew in recent weeks as Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group, fought a full-scale battle in Syria, helping the government to recapture Qusair last week. Syrian rebels fired rockets at Shiite neighborhoods in retaliation.
The Syrian government has created paramilitary fighting groups across the country, arming residents to protect their areas. The government has heavily recruited for the militias in Alawite, Shiite and Christian areas. Some militias have been accused of massacring Sunni civilians, as in the May attacks in the coastal towns of Bayda and Banias.