SYRIA'S conflict deepened on two fronts yesterday as hundreds of families fled massacres in two villages and it was confirmed that Israeli fighter jets had struck army convoys carrying missiles.
Sunni Muslims sought safety after a second village in two days was destroyed by death squads loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, apparently bent on ethnic cleansing.
Relations of the dead in the villages of Bayda and Ras al-Nabaa, in the country's north-west, said that scores, possibly hundreds, of men, women and children had been killed by militias of the president's Alawite sect that attacked on Thursday and Friday. Pictures posted online showed piles of disfigured bodies, including women and young children.
Israeli officials confirmed the air strike against a convoy they said was transporting advanced weaponry, believed to be sophisticated Iranian-made missiles, to the Lebanese Shia group, Hizbollah.
The attack was carried out from Lebanon without entering Syrian air space, but it and the massacres will strengthen the impression that the conflict is turning into a regional sectarian war between Alawites and Shia, backed by Russia, Iran and Hizbollah, and Sunnis backed by the West.
The massacre in Bayda on Thursday followed a build-up of hostility from surrounding villages, one survivor said.
"Since the revolution started, security has been arresting people in a systematic way. But during the last two weeks, the process was accelerated and some of the people who were arrested were killed in prison after torture," said the man, who gave his name as Abu Abdullah.
He said he had watched the events of Thursday from a hiding place. There had been a fight between young men of the village trying to avoid arrest and Assad forces, several of whom were killed, but the men had withdrawn.
"Security and Shabiha militia entered the village with knives and guns and started to kill everybody they met. Almost 60 per cent of the women and children of the village were killed," he said.
Mr Abdullah estimated the number of dead at 300, though activists outside the country could only confirm 50. Mr Abdullah said snipers made getting into the village to count the dead impossible.
A man who gave his name as Shami from Ras al-Nabaa but who has fled to Lebanon, said hundreds had died there. Activists said they had counted 77 names so far but believed the toll might be 250.
"It's a tragic situation, entire families were slaughtered," Shami said.
"The people recognised the faces of some of these people who were attacking. Some of them are government employees from the nearby Alawites villages – they call them the National Army, who are just civilian Alawites who are armed."
He said a cousin of his mother was killed with his wife, three daughters, son, and the son's wife and their three children. In addition, he said, 30 members of his wife's family were killed in Bayda.
The American state department condemned "atrocities against the civilian population". It said: "We will not lose sight of the men, women, and children whose lives are being so brutally cut short."
The opposition Syrian National Coalition said the residents had received warnings. "The killings in the Syrian coastal villages are a form of gradual ethnic cleansing, similar to those carried out by Serb forces in Bosnia two decades ago," it said.
The opposition believes the Assad regime is trying to carve out a defendable zone from its Alawite heartland in the north, taking in Shia areas close to Hizbollah territory in eastern Lebanon.
The operation is also being seen as a sign of Mr Assad's determination to consolidate his position.
Israel fears that Mr Assad will be forced to strengthen his alliance with Hizbollah and Iran, and that Israel itself will become a prime target.
It was the second Israeli strike this year, after the bombing of a convoy carrying missiles to the Lebanese border in January.