By BARBARA SURK, Associated Press
BEIRUT (AP) — Syria's main opposition group on Friday accused President Bashar Assad's regime of committing a "large-scale massacre" in a Sunni village near the Mediterranean coast the previous day, leaving at least 50 people dead, according to activists.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian troops backed by pro-government gunmen swept into Bayda, a village in the mountains outside the city of Banias on Thursday, killing people, including women and children, and torching homes.
The group documented the names of at least 50 dead but says as many as 100 may have been killed. The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, cited witnesses as saying that some of the victims were killed with knives or blunt objects and that dozens of villagers were still missing.
"Reports now confirm a large-scale massacre in Bayda," the Syrian National Coalition said in a statement. "Initial reports confirm that Assad's forces were directly involved" in the violence in the area, the statement added. The Coalition urged the international community to act and protect Syrian civilians.
"It is time for the world to intervene and put an end to the grievous crimes of the Assad regime," the Cairo-based opposition group said in a statement emailed to the media Friday.
The Syrian troops were still in Bayda village on Friday, conducting house to house searches, said Rami Abdul Rahman, the Observatory's director. He added that phones in the area remained cut off and communication with witnesses was only possible through satellite telephones.
The Syrian conflict, now in its third year, started as peaceful protests against Assad's rule in March 2011. It turned into armed conflict between the opposition and the government after some opposition supporters took up weapons to fight a harsh regime crackdown on dissent and soon became a full-scale civil war.
More than 70,000 people have been killed so far in the conflict, according to the United Nations. Over a million Syrians have fled their homes and sought shelter in neighboring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, while millions more have been internally displaces by the fighting.
The war has also split the country along religious lines, and the violence in Bayda appeared to have sectarian overtones. The village is primarily inhabited by Sunni Muslims, who dominate the country's rebel movement, while most of the surrounding villages are home to members of President Bashar Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
If confirmed, the violence in Bayda would be the latest in a string of alleged mass killings in Syria's civil war. Last month, activists said government troops killed more than 100 people as they seized two rebel-held suburbs of Damascus.
The relentless fighting has left the international community at a loss to find ways to end the bloodshed as neither side appears willing to find a political solution at the moment.
While the U.S. and its European and Gulf allies have backed the opposition forces, they have been reluctant to provide the rebels fighting Assad's troops with weapons that could stand up to the regime's superior firepower. They fear the arms could end up in the hands of radical Islamic groups that in the past year have become the most effective fighting force on the opposition's side.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama said his administration is looking at every option to end the bloodshed in Syria. Speaking during a news conference in Mexico City, Obama said the administration is proceeding cautiously as it looks at options, to ensure that what it does is helpful to the situation rather than making it more deadly or complex.
In Washington, Obama's defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, became the first top U.S. official to acknowledge publicly that the administration is rethinking its opposition to arming the Syrian rebels.
During a Pentagon news conference Thursday, Hagel said that "arming the rebels — that's an option," but added that the administration was looking at all options. "It doesn't mean that the president has decided on anything," Hagel said.
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