BEIRUT: Syrian rebels, including Sunni extremists, stormed a village and battled pro-regime militiamen, killing more than 60 Shiite fighters and civilians in an attack steeped in the sectarian hatreds that increasingly characterize the civil war, activists said Wednesday.
In the raid, which comes at a time when the West is worried that extremists are increasingly joining the rebellion, the victorious fighters raised black Sunni Islamist flags over the eastern village of Hatla. In amateur videos, the fighters — some wearing al-Qaida-style headbands — vented anti-Shiite slurs and fired in the air.
“The homes of the infidel Shiites were burned,” the voice behind the camera in one video shouted as smoke rose in the background from several houses.
In another video, the fighters pulled blankets off corpses to show them off, one with a wound to the head. A gunman talking to the camera gloated, saying, “This is your end, dogs.” The videos appeared genuine and in line with other reporting on the events depicted.
The attack Tuesday on Hatla, in Syria’s Deir el-Zour region near Iraq, underlined the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict.
The regime called it a “massacre,” and some opposition members expressed concern about the nature of the attack. The United States 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 United States was “appalled by reports that rebels have killed 60 Shia in Hatla village.”
“The motivations and circumstances surrounding this massacre remain unclear, but the United States strongly condemns any and all attacks against civilians,” Psaki said.
The uprising began more than two years ago with peaceful protests against President Bashar Assad but later grew into a civil war that has killed more than 80,000 people.
Most of the armed rebels in Syria are from the country’s Sunni majority, while Assad has retained core support among the minorities, including his own Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, along with Christians and Shiites.
In the past year, sectarian bitterness has grown in the conflict. Each sect has been accused of massacres against the other, and Sunni and Shiite fighters from other countries have increasingly joined the battle. But the sense of the fight being a battle between faiths was taken up a notch after Shiite guerrillas from Lebanon’s Hezbollah helped Assad’s forces take the rebel stronghold of Qusair last week.