Published: December 12, 2012

Scores of Syrian civilians belonging to President Bashar al-Assad’s minority Alawite sect were killed Tuesday in the first known Alawite massacre since the Syrian conflict began. But the killings, in the village of Aqrab, happened under circumstances that remain unclear.

Rights organizations researching the massacre said Wednesday that members of the shabiha, a pro-government Alawite militia, were the killers. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad group based in Britain with a network of contacts inside Syria, said 125 to 150 civilians died.

The accusation, if confirmed, would be a shocking episode of Alawite-on-Alawite violence in a conflict punctuated by violence between sects.

Videotaped testimony said to be from survivors, primarily women and children, has flooded the Internet in the last 24 hours, providing a series of glimpses of an atrocity in a devastated town. The picture they paint is inconclusive, however, and restrictions on foreign reporting inside Syria made verification difficult.

Many of the videos were filmed by members of the Free Syrian Army, the main anti-Assad armed group, in what appears to be a clinic, where survivors were being treated for wounds or lie wrapped in blankets, faces blank with shock. In the videos, they say that members of the shabiha gathered civilians inside a building or compound as the Free Syrian Army approached the village.

Soon, though, survivors said the shabiha turned their weapons on the same civilians they had been professing to defend.

“The shabiha came and told us they wanted to protect us from the rebels, but then they wouldn’t let us go,” said a young man in one video who gave his name as Mohamed Ibrahim al-Judud, and who like others in the videos said he was able to identify the attackers by their first names. “They killed my father, my mother and my brother.”

In another video, a young man who gave his name as Mohamed Fathy Jowwal lay wrapped in a blanket, speaking to a member of the Free Syrian Army.

“They said it was better that we kill ourselves than wait for you to kill us,” he said, looking at the young rebel fighter crouching beside him. “They were from our own group.”

Throughout the videos, members of the Free Syrian Army professed a commitment to religious pluralism and said the survivors of Aqrab were under their protection. Nevertheless, there were moments when flashes of sectarian animosity shone through. In one video, a rebel fighter could be heard saying to an injured young man, “Get well soon, even if you are in the Alawite sect.”

“Man, so what if I was in the Alawite sect?” the injured young man protests, as medics busily gathered around his bare legs. A second rebel, standing nearby, interjected and stroked his face.

“Bashar does not represent the Alawite sect,” the second fighter reassured the victim. “The Syrian people are one.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it believed the massacre victims had died from “gunfire and bombs.” Almost all were members of the Alawite sect.

The observatory also could not confirm the circumstances of their deaths, but said it had identified several similar narratives of the attack. One was that shabiha members had sought cover among civilians in a residential area, using them as shields. Another was that “pro-regime militiamen held Alawite civilians captive.” It also said that explosions had caused many of the deaths.

Syria’s conflict began as an Arab Spring protest movement after four decades of rule by the family of Mr. Assad, and has since transformed into a sectarian conflict. Even so, attacks by Alawite militias on their own civilian populations have so far been unheard-of.

Faiek al-Meer, a longtime antigovernment activist, wrote on Facebook that the Aqrab episode could be seen as a metaphor for the predicament facing the entire Alawite sect. Mr. Assad, he wrote, “will continue to fight to defend his seat and the interests of his clique even if has to use the Alawites as human shields to protect himself.”


Liam Stack reported from New York, and Hania Mourtada from Beirut, Lebanon.