BEIRUT (AP) — Thousands of Sunni Muslims fled a Syrian coastal town Saturday, a day after reports circulated that dozens of people, including children, had been killed by pro-government gunmen in the area, activists said.
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.
It was the second Israeli strike this year against Syria and the latest salvo in its long-running effort to disrupt Hezbollah's quest to build an arsenal capable of defending against Israel's air force and spreading destruction inside the Jewish state.
The violence in the coastal region of Syria underscored the sectarian nature of the two-year conflict that has killed tens of thousands and sent more than 1 million Syrians refugees to neighboring countries.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said around 4,000 people were fleeing from the predominantly Sunni southern parts of the Mediterranean city of Banias amid fears that pro-government gunmen "might commit a massacre."
There were conflicting reports of the death toll in Banias on Friday. The Observatory said at least 62 people, including 14 children, were killed in Ras al-Nabeh, a neighborhood in Banias, but that the number could rise as many people are still missing. The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said 102 people were killed.
The Observatory said security 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 just north of Banias.
Banias residents told The Associated Press by telephone that the central market was mostly closed Saturday amid fears of more violence. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals.
The reported exodus from Banias came after activists said Friday that regime troops and gunmen from nearby Alawite areas beat, stabbed and shot at least 50 people in the Sunni Muslim village of Bayda, near Banias.
The killings in Bayda brought wide condemnation as footage of dead children were widely circulated on TV stations and social media sites.
"We strongly condemn atrocities against the civilian population and reinforce our solidarity with the Syrian people," said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
"Those responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law and serious violations and abuses of human rights law must be held accountable," Psaki said.
Syria's crisis, that began in March 2011 with pro-democracy protests and later turned into a civil war that has killed an estimated 70,000 people, has 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.
Syria's mountainous coastal region is the Alawite heartland, although it is also dotted with Sunni villages
An amateur video released by the Observatory Saturday showed 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.
Elsewhere in Syria, activists and state media said troops have captured most of the villages and towns around the town of Qusair near the border with Lebanon.
The Observatory said five rebels, including a local commander, were killed in Qusair. It added that members of Lebanon's Hezbollah group are taking part in the battles against the rebels.
Hezbollah had acknowledged that it is aiding Lebanese villagers who live on the Syrian side of the border after they cane under rebel attacks.
State TV quoted an unnamed military official as saying that troops put under control al-Abadi and Tel Ghraifi areas near Damascus. He said "tens" of rebels were killed or wounded in the fighting.
Also Saturday, Syrian state TV said Assad, who rarely appears in public, visited a Damascus campus and was walking in the middle of hundreds of people. The report said Assad inaugurated a statue dedicated to "martyrs" from Syrian universities who died in the country's uprising and civil war.
A photograph posted on Assad's Facebook page showed him surrounded by bodyguards as young men, who appeared to be students, waved at him. On Wednesday, Assad visited a Damascus power station to mark May Day, according to the media.