BEIRUT (Reuters) - Hundreds of Sunni Muslim families fled the Syrian coastal town of Banias on Saturday after fighters loyal to President Bashar al-Assad killed at least 62 people overnight and left bloodied and burned corpses piled in the streets, activists said.
A pro-opposition monitoring group posted a video online showing the mutilated bodies of 10 people it said were killed in a southern district of Banias, half of them children.
Some lay in pools of blood and one toddler was covered in burns, her clothes singed and her legs charred.
Pictures posted separately on social media by other activists showed piles of bodies of men, women and children dumped in stone alleyways.
The reports and images from Banias, a Mediterranean coastal town lying beneath green hills, could not be independently verified as the Syrian government restricts access to independent media.
The killings took place two days after state forces and pro-Assad militias killed at least 50 Sunnis in the nearby village of Baida. Activists said the Baida death toll was likely to rise to over 100 and possibly 200.
The U.S. government said on Saturday it was horrified by the report of the Baida massacre and said the Syrian government was stepping up violence against civilians.
The two-year-old uprising against four decades of Assad family rule 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 people.
Minorities such as the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi‘ite Islam, have largely stood behind Assad, an Alawite. They argue that they are protecting Syria from Islamist militants.
Others say they begrudgingly support the regime out of fear they would become victims of a Sunni backlash after more than 40 years of rule by Alawite-dominated elites.
Banias is a Sunni pocket in the midst of a large Alawite enclave on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, and activists in the area accuse militias loyal to Assad of ethnic cleansing.
Hundreds of panicked Sunni families fled Ras al-Nabaa in the south of Banias early on Saturday after the night of violence, said Rami Abdelrahman, head of the monitoring group, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“But now the army is turning people back at the checkpoints outside the town, telling them to go back to Banias, that nothing is wrong. There are also announcements going out on mosque loudspeakers telling people to return home.”
A video posted online by other activists showed a pile of nearly 20 bodies in Banias that they said were all from the same family. Several women and nine children were among the dead.
ARMY “RESERVES” BLAMED
The Britain-based Observatory, which collects its information from a network of activists across Syria and residents, said the Banias attack was the work of the National Defence Forces (NDF), a new paramilitary group made up mostly of fighters from minorities that back Assad.
Trained and often directed by the military, the NDF describes itself as a reserve for the army. It has taken over the previously informal back-up role played by Alawite militias known as shabbiha, accused of previous massacres of Sunnis.
The Observatory said it had documented the names of 50 people killed on Thursday in Baida, just outside Banias. It said several women and children were among the dead.
In a statement, the U.S. State Department said it would “not lose sight of the men, women, and children whose lives are being so brutally cut short... We call on all responsible actors in Syria to speak out against the perpetration of unlawful killings against any group, regardless of faith or ethnicity.”
Banias and Baida were the scene of some of the first sectarian clashes in Syria in 2011, when shabbiha fighters attacked peaceful Sunni street protesters in the first few months of the uprising, killing several people.
The Sunni Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham published a video on Saturday of its fighters launching rockets they said were aimed at the village of Qurdaha. Qurdaha is the birthplace and burial site of Hafez al-Assad, who ruled for over 30 years until his death, when his son Bashar al-Assad took power.
Ahrar al-Sham said the attack was a response to the killings in Baida and Banias. It was not possible to determine where the rockets hit as Qurdaha is controlled by Assad’s forces.
There have been no reports on the killings or rocket attacks in Syria’s official state media.
Editing by Pravin Char and Tom Pfeiffer