Hundreds flee Syrian town after overnight massacre

Hundreds of Sunni Muslims fled Syria's coastal town of Banias yesterday, after reports circulated that fighters loyal to President Bashar al-Assad killed dozens of people overnight. Activists claimed the killings took place two days after state forces and pro-Assad militias killed at least 50 Sunnis in the nearby village of Baida. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition monitoring group, posted online a video showing the bodies of 10 people – half of them children. One toddler was covered in burns. Reports and videos of the killings could not be independently verified as the Syrian government restricts access for independent media.

The two-year-old uprising against Assad has been led by Syria's Sunni Muslim majority, and sectarian clashes and alleged massacres have become increasingly common in a conflict that has killed more than 70,000. Minorities such as the Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam, have largely stood behind Assad, who is from the Alawite sect.

Banias is a Sunni pocket in a large Alawite enclave on Syria's Mediterranean coast, and activists in the area accuse militias loyal to Assad of ethnic cleansing; another video posted online showed what they said were the bodies of 20 people killed in Banias, all from the same family and including women and nine children. The Observatory blamed the killings on the National Defence Force, a new paramilitary group made up mostly of fighters from minorities that back Assad.

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