Syria rebels kill 60

Sunni Muslim insurgents have killed about 60 Shi'ite Muslims in a rebel-held eastern Syrian town.

FILE: Free Syrian Army opposition fighters battle government security forces during the siege of the Shaar district police station in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. Picture: AFP.

BEIRUT - Sunni Muslim insurgents have killed about 60 Shi'ite Muslims in a rebel-held eastern Syrian town where President Bashar al-Assad's agents had been trying to recruit and arm fighters for his cause, according to opposition sources on Wednesday.

The attack was another sign of how a revolt that began more than two years ago with peaceful protests against four decades of Assad family rule is descending into sectarian bloodshed.

A video posted online by rebels on Tuesday, entitled "The storming and cleansing of Hatla" showed dozens of gunmen carrying black Islamist flags celebrating and firing guns in the streets of a small town as smoke curled above several buildings.

"We have raised the banner 'There is no God but God' above the houses of the apostate rejectionists, the Shi'ites, and the holy warriors are celebrating," the voice of the cameraman says.

In the Damascus area, rebels reported that 27 of their comrades had been killed in an ambush near the town of al-Maraj.

Video uploaded by activists showed victims shot in the face or head. The camera scanned over several bloodied and dirt-coated corpses as men called out for help washing the bodies.

Musaab Abu Qutada, an opposition activist, said the men had been trying to break through a military blockade to bring supplies into rebel strongholds in suburbs of the capital.

Assad's forces, backed by the Lebanese Shi'ite group Hezbollah, won a significant victory by seizing the border town of Qusair last week and are now believed to be preparing offensives on rebel-held areas near Damascus and Aleppo.

Many of the fighters involved in the Hatla attack were said to be from the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. Hardline Sunni groups often refer to Shi'ites as rejectionists because they deny the legitimacy of the Prophet Mohammad's first successors.

"This is a Sunni area, it does not belong to other groups," one fighter shouted in the video purportedly filmed in the town of Hatla in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition monitoring group that has reported abuses on both sides of the conflict, put the death toll in Tuesday's attack at 60, saying most victims were pro-Assad Shi'ite militiamen. Assad's minority Alawite sect is rooted in Shi'ite Islam. Most rebels are Sunnis.

The Observatory said many Shi'ite civilians, a minority in the mixed town of Hatla, had fled elsewhere in the province.