Human rights and church groups voiced concern Friday for the fate of more than 200 civilians, including many Christians, reportedly kidnapped by the Islamic State militant group in Syria's Homs province.
Amid conflicting accounts, Amnesty International called for the release of detainees from the town of Qaryatain, 45 miles southeast of Homs, the provincial capital.
"The abhorrent abduction in Syria of more than 200 people by Islamic State highlights the dreadful plight of civilians caught up in the conflict in the country," Neil Sammonds, Amnesty International's Syria researcher, said in a statement Friday.
The international human rights organization called on Islamic State to "respect the rules of war and immediately release those civilians unharmed."
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition watchdog group based in England, said the extremists had detained 230 civilians, including "scores" of Christians, from Qaryatain, which was overrun last week.
Among those taken were 45 women and 19 children, the observatory said. The group said at least 800 people were still missing from the town, once home to about 14,000 people.
The Syrian Orthodox Archdiocese in Homs said negotiations with the militants had secured the release of 200 Christian families, although 100 families remained in custody. Those released were taken to the nearby village of Saddad, the archdiocese said in a letter.
But others disputed the abduction reports, saying no families had been held. Much of the population fled as Islamic State approached the town, according to social media accounts.
"There is no detaining of any family from the Christians or others," said an opposition activist who runs a Facebook page titled "Qaryatain Around the Clock," and asked not to be identified by his real name due to security concerns. "At least half the population left already, and others left but have returned."
He described those detained by Islamic State as suspected "regime collaborators."
Islamic State frequently executes government officials, soldiers and others denounced as "collaborators" with the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The Sunni Muslim Al Qaeda breakaway group also executes captives whom it deems "infidels," including followers of Shiite Islam or Shiite-offshoot sects. The group says Christians can live under Islamic State rule if they pay a special tax.
Islamic State also holds hostages for ransom or possible prisoner exchange.
The takeover of Qaryatain represents the westernmost push of Islamic State in central Homs province, Syria's largest province. In May, Islamic State forces overran the Homs city of Palmyra, site of famous Roman-era ruins.
With Qaryatain, Islamic State is in position to cut off the strategic highway stretching from Damascus, Assad's seat of power, north to Homs. The vital artery also links the two major cities to government strongholds on the Mediterranean coast.
In recent weeks, Islamic State has suffered territorial reversals in northern Syria to Kurdish-led forces aided by U.S. aerial bombardment. A major loss was the border town of Tal Abyad, along Syria's northern border with Turkey, which Kurdish forces overran in June, evicting Islamic State militants.
On Friday, the militants' "Dimashq State" media office released photographs depicting tanks, trucks and weapons purportedly taken as "bounty" from Syrian army units. The pro-Islamic State Amaaq News Agency said 45 army soldiers were killed in the militants' "combing operations" in a chain of hills west of Qaryatain.
Syria's more than four-year conflict pits the government and allied groups, including Lebanese-based Hezbollah, against myriad opposition groups, including Islamic State and other Al Qaeda-style militants.
In recent months, the overstretched Syrian army has been forced to cede some territory to opposition forces, including Islamic State, in an attempt to bolster the defense of the capital and other strategic areas still under its control.
Special correspondent Bulos reported from Amman. Times staff writer McDonnell reported from Beirut.