BEIRUT — A car bomb detonated Thursday near a school in the central Syrian province of Hama, killing 18 people, according to the Syrian government and opposition sources.
The bomb exploded outside the town of Salmiya, killing mostly women and children, the reports said. The state-run news agency SANA said the attack left dozens wounded and caused "very significant" property damage.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based pro-opposition group, said the casualty toll was likely to rise.
Salmiya is known for its Ismaili majority. The minority sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, related to the Alawite sect of President Bashar Assad, who has fought a nearly three-year battle against the Sunni-dominated armed opposition. The sectarian civil war has left more than 100,000 people dead.
Separately, activists reported the opening of a new front in fighting between rebel factions in Homs province, a central region previously thought to have been devoid of rebels with the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Fighters with the faction have abandoned most of the territory they had held for about six months in the north, near Aleppo, Idlib and Raqqah, after a six-day rout at the hands of other Islamist groups.
Omar Hariri, a media activist with the Shaam News Network, who was reached via Skype, said clashes between fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and those with the Free Syrian Army were occurring near Rustun, in the northern Homs countryside. Another activist, Abu Yusef, corroborated the report.
The fighting apparently involved the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria's killing of several gunmen from Liwa Khaled ibn al Walid, a rival faction that operates in the area, as well as the kidnapping of its commander.
Al Hadath News, a pro-government news outlet, released a video purportedly showing a room full of people killed while in the custody of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, one of the many gruesome videos highlighting the savagery that has marked the conflict. The accuracy of the video could not be independently verified.
As the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria saw its grip become increasingly tenuous, it repeatedly threatened to retreat from the front lines in the north, a threat it seems to have carried out.
Although government forces initially failed to take advantage of the withdrawal of some of the opposition's most experienced fighters, activists reported that troops were advancing on Homs province, as well as the Kuweyres military air base about 23 miles east of Aleppo. The base, which remains under government control, had been under siege by rebels.
According to the pro-government Facebook page Syrian Perspective, the siege was broken "after a long and tiresome battle" against the Syrian army. It said that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria "has retreated toward Idlib as the [Syrian army] captured a village near the base; this offers a buffer for the army."
Both sides have jockeyed to consolidate their gains, both militarily and image-wise. The government has sought to appear cooperative in the surrender of its chemical weapons arsenal in a deal brokered by the United States and Russia.
Many activists and opposition leaders view the purge of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the resurgence of the hitherto moribund Free Syrian Army as attractive to Westerners wary of inadvertently supporting Al Qaeda.
"Is this not a conspiracy ... to end the dream of the Muslims to establish their own state in Syria?!" wrote Abu Hafas al Masry, a commander with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, on his Facebook page. "We warn every dog ... that we have pledged allegiance to death."
Bulos is a special correspondent.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times