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Middle East

Syria civil war: Bashar al-Assad's fighters accused of massacre in Banias

US State Department: 'We strongly condemn atrocities against the civilian population'

Activists say thousands of Sunni Muslims have fled the Mediterranean city of Banias, in Syria, after reports of killings by pro-government militia.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said around 4,000 people were fleeing from the city, amid fears that the gunmen "might commit a massacre."

The Observatory said at least 62 people, including 14 children, were killed in the Ras al-Nabeh neighbourhood, while the Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, put the death toll at 102.

The Observatory said forces were checking people's identity cards and asking them to return to Banias so that the situation could appear normal. It said those fleeing were mostly heading to the city of Tartus to the south and the town of Jableh to the north.

Residents told The Associated Press by telephone that the central market was mostly closed Saturday over fears of more violence.

The reported exodus came after activists yesterday accused President Bashar al-Assad’s regime of committing a “large-scale massacre” in nearby Bayda.

An amateur video released by the Observatory shows a man and at least three children dead inside a room. A baby had burned legs and a body stained with blood. Next to him was a young girl whose face had been deformed after apparently being hit with a sharp object.

The videos appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting on the events depicted.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory, identified the man killed as Haitham Sahyouni. He said Sahyouni was found dead along with his three children, his brother Hamid and mother Watfa. He said it was not clear if Sahyouni was an opposition supporter.

Jen Psaki, spokeswoman for the US State Department, said: "We strongly condemn atrocities against the civilian population and reinforce our solidarity with the Syrian people.

"Those responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law and serious violations and abuses of human rights law must be held accountable."

Syria's civil war, now in its third year, is thought to have killed more than 70,000 and displaced more than one million. It is fought between forces loyal to President Assad and rebels, mostly from the disparate Free Syrian Army.

The conflict has spilled periodically across the ceasefire line and Syria's borders with Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, threatening to engulf the region.

It has since  largely broken along sectarian lines.

The Sunni majority forms the backbone of the rebellion, while Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, anchors the regime's security services and the military's officer corps. Other minorities, such as Christians, largely support Assad or stand on the sidelines, worried that the regime's fall would bring about a more Islamist rule.

The violence occurred as embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad made his second public appearance in a week in the capital, Damascus. Also, Israeli officials confirmed that the country's air force carried out an airstrike against Syria, saying it targeted a shipment of advanced missiles bound for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, an ally of the Assad regime.