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Damascus in dark as electricity fails

In the north, rise in sectarian attacks reported

A Free Syrian Army fighter fired his weapon in a clash with forces loyal to President Bashar Assad in Aleppo.

HAMID KHATIB/REUTERS

A Free Syrian Army fighter fired his weapon in a clash with forces loyal to President Bashar Assad in Aleppo.

DAMASCUS — A power failure plunged Damascus and southern Syria into darkness late Saturday, Syria’s state news agency said, while antiregime activists reported a string of tit-for-tat, sectarian kidnappings in the country’s north.

The news agency, SANA, quoted Electricity Minister Imad Khamis as saying that the failure of a high voltage line had left the country’s south without power.

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The blackout affected Syria’s capital, Damascus, and the southern provinces of Daraa and Sweida, which abut the Jordanian border. Streets were dark across the capital. A fuel shortage makes it hard for residents to run backup generators.

A similar blackout struck Damascus and southern Syria Jan. 20, leaving many residents with no way to heat their homes on a cold winter night. The government blamed that outage on a rebel attack, and power was restored to most areas the following day.

The Syrian capital’s 2.5 million residents have grown used to frequent power cuts as the country’s conflict has damaged infrastructure and sapped the government’s finances.

Meanwhile, antiregime activists reported a string of kidnappings in recent days that have enflamed tensions between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim villages that back opposite sides in the country’s civil war.

The activists differed on the number kidnapped from both sides, with reports ranging from a few dozen to more than 300.

The kidnappings point to the dark sectarian overtones of Syria’s civil war, which pits a predominantly Sunni Muslim rebellion against a regime dominated by President Bashar Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. The country is also home to Christian, Kurdish, Armenian, and Shi’ite communities, all of whom have been swept up in the conflict.

The kidnappings took place between two Shi’ite villages in the northern Idlib province and a number of Sunni villages that surround them.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 42 Shi’ites, including mainly women and children, were snatched Thursday from a bus that was traveling from the Shi’ite villages of Foua and Kfarya to the capital Damascus. Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman, said it was not clear who took them, adding that Shi’ites have refused to give the names of those kidnapped or details about the make or color of the bus.

Since then, however, Shi’ite gunmen from the two villages have kidnapped more than 300 people from nearby Sunni villages, Abdul-Rahman said.

The kidnappings highlighted how much the civil war has heightened sectarian tensions. Kidnapping for ransom has grown common across Syria since the crisis began in March 2011, but sectarian and political abductions have been rare.

Antiregime activists in Idlib reached via Skype confirmed the kidnappings, but gave much lower numbers for the number of people involved.

Activist Fadi al-Yassin Al-Yassin said Foua and Kfarya are being used by the regime to bombard nearby villages and towns, saying the regime has turned them into ‘‘castles of shabiha,’’ referring to progovernment gunmen.

In retaliation for the kidnappings, pro-regime Popular Committees members set up a checkpoint near the Shi’ite villages and Thursday and Friday were taking people from cars they stopped, the Observatory said. It added that most of those abducted were from Sunni villages of Saraqeb, Binnish, Sarmin, Qimnas, Maaret al-Numan, and Maaret Musreen.

Yassin confirmed the kidnappings on both sides but added that the 300 figure is high. He said few dozens of people have been abducted in the area.

Abdul-Rahman and al-Yassin said such acts could incite sectarian clashes between Shiites, who have largely sided with the regime, and majority Sunnis in Idlib, where the sects have coexisted for decades.

The high number of women and children allegedly taken prompted the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura, to issue a statement calling for their release.

‘‘Allegations of abduction and rape of women and girls by armed groups have been received,’’ she said. ‘‘I am deeply concerned about the well-being of these women and children and would like to remind the armed group responsible for this abduction that acts of sexual violence will not be tolerated.’’

In the nearby province of Aleppo, rebels and troops fought fierce battles around the military air base of Kweiras, which opposition forces have been trying to capture for weeks, the Observatory said.

In the city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest urban center and commercial capital, rebels and troops battled around the international airport and the nearby air base of Nairab, said the Observatory and the Aleppo Media Center.

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