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New massacre fears as Syria army batters Banias

Men throw stones at riot police during clashes in the Mediterranean coastal town of Banias, on May 27, 2011
Men throw stones at riot police during clashes in the Mediterranean coastal town of Banias, on May 27, 2011. The army has bombarded Sunni areas of Banias in northwestern Syria, as heavy gunfire rocked southern parts of the city, according to the Syrian Ob

The Syrian army bombarded Sunni areas of Banias on Friday as heavy gunfire rocked the northwestern city, a watchdog said, raising fears of a new massacre.

"Some neighbourhoods in southern Banias are being bombarded by regular troops and soldiers manning checkpoints in the area have opened up with fire," said the Britain-based watchdog.

Observatory director Rami 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," a Sunni village south of Alawite-majority Banias, Abdel Rahman told AFP.

Fierce clashes between rebels and soldiers erupted Thursday in Banias and Bayda, where government troops and pro-regime militias were accused by the opposition of carrying out a "large-scale massacre".

Citing witness accounts of civilians being stabbed to death in Bayda, the opposition National Coalition called for urgent action from the United Nations and the Arab League "to save the civilians of Bayda, Banias and other villages across Syria".

In its statement, the opposition accused the Syrian regime of "war crimes and genocide".

Abdel Rahman told AFP on Thursday, citing villagers who fled Bayda, that "at least 50 people were killed in summary executions and shelling" in the village.

The Observatory, which relies on a broad network of sources on the ground for its information, also reported on Thursday that some people "were summarily executed, shot to death, stabbed or set on fire".

It said regular troops were backed by shabiha, pro-government militiamen.

Map locating the Syrian village of Bayda
Map locating the village of Bayda, where the Syrian opposition claim a massacre was carried out by regime fighters

The Alawite sect to which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad belongs is an offshoot of Shiite Islam while insurgents battling to topple his regime are mainly Sunni Muslims.

Along with Daraa, cradle of the uprising against Assad's regime in the south, Banias saw some of the first anti-regime demonstrations in March 2011.

Banias has a population of about 40,000, half of whom are Sunnis, 45 percent Alawites and the rest Christians and Ismailis, another Shiite branch, according to experts.

The Sunni-populated village of Bayda is home to about 6,000 people.

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