BEIRUT -- At least 30 Shiite Muslim residents of an eastern Syria village 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 Syrian conflict's increasingly sectarian nature.
The Syrian government called the killings, reported to have happened Tuesday in Hatlah, a village in the oil-rich Deir el-Zour province, a massacre of civilians, saying 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 a day earlier. But some 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 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.
Some extremist Sunnis refer to Shiites as rejectionists because the sect arose from a group that rejected 7th-century successors of the ProphetMohammed.
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 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 grew in recent weeks as Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group, fought a full-scale battle in Syria, helping the government recapture the town of Qusair last week. Syrian rebels fired rockets at Shiite neighborhoods in retaliation.
President Bashar Assad, who is from the Alawite sect, a Shiite Islam offshoot, draws some of his support from minority groups that fear reprisals or oppression from extremists among the 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 militias have been accused of massacring Sunni civilians.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based anti-government watchdog group with a network of contacts across Syria, said the attack Tuesday killed 60 people, mostly from a pro-government militia. Rebel spokesman Omar Abu Layla said the fighters had captured militiamen who told them that they were planning to attack rebel leaders.
But the state news agency, SANA, said Al Nusra Front members, whom it called terrorists, had "perpetrated a massacre" of "30 civilians, among them women and children."