BEIRUT — Mystery continues to surround the fate of scores of people, mostly members of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s Alawite Muslim sect, said to have been trapped and possibly killed this week in the town of Aqrab.
The incident comes as a number of disturbing videos emerging from rebel-held areas of Syria seem to show Sunni Muslim rebels committing sectarian attacks, in one case torching a Shiite Muslim mosque in northern Idlib province.
The walls of the targeted mosque in the village of Zarzur bear the slogan: “No, 1001 times to sectarian strife!” (Here is a link to a breakdown of the episode on the Brown Moses blog, which examines videos from Syria.)
Shiites are a small minority in Syria, said to account for less than 3% of the population. Alawites, whose sect is regarded as an offshoot of Shiite Islam, are estimated at 10% to 12%.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition group, said this week that as many as 150 civilians, mostly Alawites, died "as a result of a series of explosions and gunfire” in Aqrab, a mixed Sunni-Alawite town of about 10,000 in central Syria's Hama province. The group called on the United Nations to conduct an inquiry.
The Syrian government officially denied that any "massacre" had taken place, but provided no details on what was happening in Aqrab.
The town is situated along one of Syria's major sectarian fault lines, just five miles from Houla, site of a massacre in May that left more than 100 dead, mostly women and children, and shocked the world. The government and the rebels blamed each other for the carnage in Houla.
Opposition videos circulated widely on the Internet suggest that pro-government militiamen known as shabiha were responsible for the killings in Aqrab. An unanswered question was why regime gunmen would kill Alawites presumably allied with the government.
Britain’s Channel 4 News managed this week to reach the outskirts of Aqrab. Its version of events implicates the rebels.
The Channel 4 report quotes witnesses as saying the rebels entered Aqrab on Dec. 2 and "corralled around 500 Alawite civilians in a large red-colored, two-story house," according to a blog by Alex Thomson, the Channel 4 correspondent at the scene. The rebels sought to use the Alawite women and children as "human shields" to prevent government bombardment of a nearby rebel-held town, Channel 4 reported, citing witness statements.
Channel 4 recounted that negotiations to release the prisoners faltered and on Monday rebels opened fire on the building where they were being held.
According to the Channel 4 report, which aired Friday, about 70 prisoners escaped Tuesday but many people remained trapped in the building the day of the broadcast. Their fate could not be determined, the report said.
Nadim Houry, deputy director of the Middle East division of Human Rights Watch, said the situation in Aqrab was "very murky," but it seemed clear that a number of people had been killed.
"There are various narratives there, and we don’t have enough to have a conclusion yet," Houry said. "I’m not using the word massacre. It’s not clear to me how they died."
Rima Marrouch in Marrakesh, Morocco contributed to this report.