BEIRUT — At least 30 Shi’ite Muslim residents of a village in eastern Syria were killed in a reprisal raid by rebels, the government, opposition fighters, and activists said Wednesday, the latest in a string of massacres underscoring the increasingly sectarian nature of the Syrian conflict.
The Syrian government called the killings, which were reported to have taken place Tuesday in Hatlah, a village in the oil-rich province of Deir el-Zour, a massacre of civilians, saying that 30 died. Antigovernment activists put the toll at 60 and said most of the dead were progovernment militia fighters who had attacked rebels one day earlier. But some of the activists nonetheless condemned the Hatlah attack as a destructive act of revenge that showed the powerlessness of moderates among the mostly Sunni rebels to rein in extremists.
What was not in dispute was that several battalions of Sunni rebels, including members of extremist Islamist groups, stormed the village and, in video posted online by antigovernment activists, could be seen setting houses on fire as they shouted sectarian slogans, calling Shi’ites dogs, apostates, and infidels.
“This is your end, you dogs,” a man off camera said as he panned across what he said were the corpses of “pug-nosed” Shi’ites, including one with what appeared to be a gunshot wound to the head.
“We have raised the banner of ‘There Is No God but God’ over the houses of the rejectionist Shi’ite apostates,” one fighter chanted in another clip as a black cloud billowed above the village and jubilant gunmen brandished black flags often used by the extremist Al Nusra Front and other Islamist fighting groups.
“Here are the jihadists celebrating their storming of the rejectionists’ houses! The Shi’ite rejectionists!” the fighter said. Some extremist Sunnis refer to Shi’ites as rejectionists because the sect arose from a group that rejected the early successors of the Prophet Muhammad.
The Syrian conflict began as a popular uprising demanding political rights, but gradually has taken on a more sectarian tone. As the conflict became militarized, with the government cracking down on demonstrators, some of its opponents, mostly Sunni army defectors and others, took up arms. Sunni jihadists have also joined the fight, and extremis have been able to count on financing from like-minded private donors, making them increasingly influential on the battlefield.
Shi’ite fighters from Lebanon and Iraq have also entered Syria to defend Shi’ite shrines and fight alongside a government they see as protecting their interests.
Sectarian tensions further grew in recent weeks as Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite militant group, fought a full-scale battle in Syria, helping the government to recapture the town of Qusair last week.