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Syrian extremist rebels raid Shiite village

Thursday - 6/13/2013, 4:42am  ET

FILE - This Wednesday, June 5, 2013 file photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows a damaged church in the town of Qusair, near the Lebanese border, in Homs province, Syria. Syrian rebels’ defeat in Qusair cost them more than a strategic location, it has also left a battered spirit and deep frustration. Over the course of a year, rebels holding the town had heavily fortified it with tunnels, mine fields, and booby traps and when the regime assault came they fought back ferociously. But in the end they were outgunned and outnumbered, and were forced into a harrowing, crushing flight from the town. (AP Photo/SANA, File)

SARAH EL DEEB
Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) -- 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 conformed with other Associated Press 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 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 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. Some fighters in Hatla can be heard in the video calling the attack "the first revenge for Qusair."

An activist based in Deir el-Zour said the rebel attack was in retaliation for an attack Monday by Shiites from Hatla that killed four rebels.

The town is home to several thousand people, about 30 percent of them Shiites, and was considered a pro-regime community in the Euphrates River valley, where rebels -- including the al-Qaida-linked group Jabhat el-Nusra -- have taken over much of the territory.

Rebels launched a counterattack Tuesday, said the activist, Thaer al-Deiry, who identified himself only by his nickname for fear of government retaliation, via Skype. He said some 150 Shiites from the village fled across the Euphrates to the government-held village of Jafra.

Activists said many of the dead were pro-government militiamen who had earlier attacked the rebel bases. But there were also many civilians killed in the raid, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based anti-Assad group that has a large network of activists.

"These atrocities were carried out on a sectarian basis," the Observatory said, adding that it was difficult to discern the fighters from the civilian casualties. The group posted two videos from the scene.

More people were believed killed in the fighting, including many children and civilians, according to an opposition figure who was informed of details of the attack. A Shiite mosque in the village was also set on fire, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation.

The Observatory said thousands of rebels took part in the attack, and at least 10 were killed. A Facebook page of Islamist activists in Deir el-Zour province said Jabhat el-Nusra and rebel fighters from the Free Syrian Army, the main rebel umbrella group, were involved. There was no immediate confirmation from the group, which includes many non-Syrian jihadists.

In the videos, Sunni extremists among the fighters were seen moving through streets that appeared vacant, cheering and insulting Shiites, whom they consider infidels and a breakaway sect from Islam.

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