Fears of 'massacre' in Syria’s Banias
DAMASCUS - Syrian troops Friday bombarded Sunni areas of the Mediterranean city of Banias, a monitoring group said, warning of a new "massacre," as Washington said for the first time it was looking at arming rebels.
The opposition National Coalition earlier denounced a "large-scale massacre" by troops and militiamen on Thursday in a Sunni village near Banias, a new front in Syria's war, citing witness reports of civilians being stabbed to death.
"The Coalition calls on the Arab League and the United Nations to act rapidly to save the civilians of Bayda, Banias and other villages across Syria," it said in a statement, accusing the regime of "war crimes and genocide".
"Several sources in the village say at least 50 people were killed in summary executions and shelling in Bayda village," a southern suburb of the Alawite-majority city, Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The official SANA news agency said troops killed "terrorists" -- the regime term for insurgents -- and seized arms in an operation targeting rebels.
Regular forces were supported by pro-regime "shabiha" militiamen, said the Observatory, which relies on a network of sources on the ground for its information.
"Many villagers have fled to Sunni districts in southern Banias, as there is no refuge for them in Alawite areas," said Abdel Rahman.
The Banias region is predominantly Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam and the sect of President Bashar al-Assad, while the insurgents battling to topple his regime are mainly Sunni Muslims.
On Friday, the army bombarded Sunni areas of Banias as heavy gunfire rocked southern parts of the city, the Observatory said.
Abdel Rahman said troops were raiding homes and making arrests "triggering panic" among residents.
"I fear that there could be a massacre like the one that happened yesterday in Bayda," he warned.
Elsewhere, rebels fired two rockets at Damascus international airport, hitting an aircraft and a fuel dump and sparking a massive fire, SANA said.
"One rocket hit a kerosene tank and the other hit a parked commercial aircraft, badly damaging it," the agency said, adding traffic was "normal" and the fire had been extinguished.
Rebels have claimed several times to have fired at Damascus airport but it was the first such report from the official media.
With the Syrian conflict that has cost more than 70,000 lives now in its third year, the United States said Thursday it was taking a fresh look at whether to arm the outgunned rebels.
After having rejected the idea previously, President Barack Obama's deputies were weighing the option of providing weapons to the rebels, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters.
Asked whether the US government was rethinking its opposition to arming the rebels, Hagel replied with a firm "Yes." But Hagel said no decision had been reached.
Asked about Hagel's comments later, Obama said they represented the view he has expressed for "months".
"As we've seen evidence of further bloodshed, potential use of chemical weapons inside of Syria, what I've said is that we're going to look at all options," he said in Mexico.
But, Obama added, "we want to make sure that we look before we leap and that what we're doing is actually helpful to the situation, as opposed to making it more deadly or more complex."
Speculation has mounted the Obama administration could reverse its opposition to arming the rebels after officials said last week that US spy agencies now believe Syria's regime may have used chemical weapons on a small scale.
Meanwhile, the family of a US journalist missing in Syria said he is believed to be in the hands of government intelligence agents at a detention centre near Damascus.
James Foley, a 39-year-old freelancer who has filed reports for GlobalPost, Agence France-Presse and other outlets, has been missing in Syria for nearly six months
"With a high degree of confidence, we now believe that Jim was most likely abducted by a pro-regime militia group, commonly referred to as the shabiha, and subsequently turned over to Syrian government forces," said GlobalPost chief Phil Balboni.