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Syria violence is often sectarian, refugees say

Sunni majority, rural areas now reportedly targets

AL QAA, Lebanon — Sunni Muslims who have fled Syria described a government crackdown that is more pervasive and more sectarian than previously understood, with civilians affiliated with Bashar Assad’s minority religious sect shooting at their onetime neighbors as the military presses what many Sunnis see as a campaign to force them to flee their homes and villages in some sections of the country.

The refugees, from in and around Qusayr, a town in the same province as the rebellious city of Homs, offered a rare eyewitness account this week of the unfolding tumult in western Syria as an intensive bombardment of communities continues. They said it appeared that the government concluded that when it pushed rebels from strongholds like the Baba Amr neighborhood in Homs, opposition fighters and protesters quickly regrouped in other Sunni areas.

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As a result, they said they believed that the government was not only striking at large, rebellious urban centers but also has hit towns and villages that have not been central to the year-old popular uprising. They painted a picture of a section of western Syria that is more thoroughly under siege - and perhaps more widely in revolt - than has generally been obtainable from firsthand accounts.

“The army wants to displace people to get them away from the protests,’’ said Abu Munzer, 59, a Syrian army veteran from the village of Mazaria; like most people interviewed, he was afraid to give his full name. “If they die or they leave, there will be no one there to protest.’’

There are at least 6,000 Syrian refugees living in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon, according to the United Nations, including several dozen interviewed here at the northern end of the valley. They said they felt threatened as Sunnis and several said that they saw the military give out rifles to residents of neighboring Alawite villages - members of the same Muslim sect as Assad - and that their neighbors then opened fire on them.

Most Syrians are Sunni Muslims, but the government and security elites are dominated by Assad’s Alawite sect. The government has inflamed sectarian fears by portraying itself as the defender of Syria’s substantial Christian and Alawite populations against what it calls attacks by Sunni Islamists.

Umm Nasser, 34, a pregnant woman, said that about 15 members of her family in the village of Joussi came under fire from the nearby Alawite village of Hasbeeh two weeks ago as they tried to leave their house.

Her mother, Umm Khalid, 65, said that beginning in October she had seen government troops laying out rifles on the ground and distributing them to Alawite residents. Umm Nasser said she did not know why, but that in the past month many Joussi residents had been fired upon by Hasbeeh residents.

“We know them,’’ she said. “We used to live side by side.’’

Skeptics say that if whole populations were fleeing, there would be many thousands more refugees in neighboring countries. Refugees, however, say that many people are afraid to cross into Lebanon, whose army they see as supporting Syria, and instead have fled to relatives’ homes elsewhere in Syria. The Syrian Red Crescent reported this month that there were more than 200,000 internally displaced people.

Accounts of shelling of civilians appeared to be corroborated by a Human Rights Watch report issued last week, based on interviews with 17 refugees from Qusayr and a French journalist who spent time there. The report described widespread civilian deaths and injuries from shelling of neighborhoods and farms and from shooting attacks as people tried to flee.

The refugees here seemed ambivalent about describing what they saw as sectarian cleansing. Many said they personally held out hope for a pluralistic future of religious equality and would support a just government of any sect. But at the same time, they said they felt that Sunnis were targeted, viewed their own struggle in religious terms, and blamed Alawites for most of the violence.

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