BEIRUT, Lebanon -- At least 30 Shiite Muslim residents of a village in eastern Syria were killed in a reprisal raid by rebels, the government and 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 on Tuesday in Hatlah, a village in the oil-rich province of Deir al-Zour, a massacre of civilians, saying that 30 died. Anti-government activists put the toll at 60 and said most of the dead were pro-government 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 anti-government activists, could be seen setting houses on fire as they shouted sectarian slogans, calling Shiites 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" Shiites, 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 Shiite 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 Shiite rejectionists!," the fighter added. Some extremist Sunnis refer to Shiites as rejectionists because the sect arose from a group that rejected the early successors of the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century.
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 from across the region have also joined the fight, and extremist groups have been able to count on financing from like-minded private donors, making them increasingly influential on the battlefield.
Shiite fighters from Lebanon and Iraq have also entered Syria to defend Shiite shrines and fight alongside a government they see as protecting their interests.
Sectarian tensions further grew in recent weeks as Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group, fought a full-scale battle in Syria, helping the government to recapture the town of Qusayr last week. Syrian rebels fired rockets at Shiite neighborhoods in retaliation.
President Bashar al-Assad, who is from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, draws some of his support from minority groups that fear reprisals or oppression from extremists among the country's majority Sunnis.
The Syrian government has created paramilitary fighting groups across the country, arming residents to protect their areas. The government has heavily recruited for the militias in Alawite, Shiite and Christian areas. Some of the militias have been accused of massacring Sunni civilians, as in the May attacks in the coastal towns of Bayda and Banias.
Some opponents of Mr. Assad accuse his supporters of playing on minority fears and more recently of using sectarian slogans. A video said to have been leaked from a recent recruiting session in the largely Shiite village of Nabl in the northern province of Aleppo, for example, showed a crowd of recruits praising Hussein, a central figure in Shiism, and the recruiter promising, "We will fight under the banner of Hussein."
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based anti-government watchdog group with a network of contacts across Syria, said the attack killed 60 people, mostly from a pro-government militia. A rebel spokesman, Omar Abu Layla, said that the fighters had captured militiamen who told them they were planning to attack rebel leaders.
But the state news agency, SANA, said that members of Al Nusra, whom it called terrorists, had "perpetrated a massacre" of "30 civilians, among them women and children."
In Kuwait, a Sunni sheik who has used sectarian invective against the Assad government appeared to applaud the "slaughter" of Shiites in Hatlah and to threaten the Shiite villages of Nabl and Zahraa in Aleppo province, in a video noted by Hassan Hassan, a columnist for the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National, who is from eastern Syria.
"Today, we took the village of Hatlah and we slaughtered the bad with knives," the sheik, Shafi al-Ajmi, said in the video. "Like you slaughtered our women and children in Qusayr, we slaughtered one of your symbols" – a man he referred to as "the bad Hussein."
"As for tomorrow," he added, "we have a date with Nabl and Zahraa."
"Every day they will have new deaths and injured," the sheik said, adding, in a reference to Hezbollah, "I swear that Syria will be a grave for the devil's party."
Ragheb Bashir, an anti-government activist from Deir al-Zour who is currently in Turkey, condemned the attack on the Shiites there.
"Such attacks should be against the regime and not against each other," he said in a telephone interview, adding that he had visited Hatlah many times since the uprising began and that the small Shiite population had grown increasingly anxious.
"They became armed because they were afraid," he said. "My advice was, 'do not attack us, and we won't either.'"
He added, "Since the moderate Syrians were left powerless, we will see more such attacks." He was referring to the reluctance of the United States and others among the Syrian uprising's international backers to provide direct military support.
Much as the Syrian conflict is fueled by political and strategic rivalries across the region, the fighting in Deir al-Zour springs from local conflicts that are economic and political, residents said.
In the 1990s, some people in the overwhelmingly Sunni province, including hundreds in Hatlah, converted to Shiism, as Mr. Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, drew closer to Shiite-led Iran. Some saw the converts as seeking financial and social advantage, while others said they came from tribes that were originally Shiite and were returning to their roots.
There was "dormant jealousy" against Shiites who tended to be wealthier, Mr. Bashir said. Tensions have also grown in the area over control of oil fields, he said.
In recent weeks, the government organized one of its new militias, formally known as the National Defense Forces, in Hatlah, drawing only from the 600 Shiites in the village of 12,000, said Mr. Abu Layla, who identified himself as a spokesman for the Eastern Syria chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army, the Western-backed rebel umbrella group.
On Monday, hundreds of the militiamen launched a surprise attack on a rebel post, killing four, activists said.
After that, thousands of Sunni rebels, including members of the Free Syrian Army and the Nusra Front, attacked the village, according to the Observatory and Mr. Abu Layla.
Mr. Abu Layla said they surrounded the village and used loudspeakers to ask people to surrender.
Government forces stationed in a nearby military airport unleashed an artillery barrage on the battalions, killing two rebels and injuring a dozen, the Syrian Observatory said, but the rebels managed to seize control of the village within hours.
Mr. Abu Layla said that 55 men were killed during the clashes.
Hundreds of Shiite fighters fled seeking refuge in the government-held village of Jafra located across the Euphrates River, the Syrian Observatory said.
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.