Assad's troops 'cleansing villages of Sunni Muslims'
Bashar al-Assad's militias are "cleansing" towns and villages of their Sunni Muslim inhabitants across the Syrian province of Homs, refugee families and residents have claimed.
The Shabiha, a loyalist militia drawn largely from the Syrian president's Alawite sect, is systematically looting and destroying the homes of any Sunnis who have fled the province, a key battleground in the country's civil war.
"They pushed out the rebel fighters and now they are trying to push out all the Sunnis," said Bilal, a 23-year-old from the Sunni village of Talkalakh in Homs province. "They took our houses, threatened us, destroyed our villages."
Mr Assad's regime has trained its military might on rebel strongholds in Homs province, winning back the border towns of Qusair and Talkalakh and shelling areas of the provincial capital.
The offensive is so intense that rebels admit that they cannot hold out for much longer. It has also taken on a sectarian character, with the army yesterday bombarding the Sunni mausoleum of Khaled bin Walid, a companion of the Prophet Mohammed, in Homs. Whether this was intentional or a mistake is unclear.
After each campaign, Alawite civilians and loyalist paramilitaries from the National Defence Force have stormed the newly recaptured towns and villages, looting Sunni homes and often setting them on fire, with the apparent aim of ensuring that the owners have nothing left to return to.
"After the army were finished, the Shabiha came: they divided the houses up between them, and started taking away the spoils," said Zacharia, a 23-year-old rebel fighter.
Local people believe the regime is trying to cleanse the area of its Sunni residents with the aim of creating a rump state for the minority Alawites.
Some experts are sceptical, believing that the regime, buoyed by its recent military victories, is focused simply on crushing the insurgency across the country.
But expelling Sunnis, who have tended to back the rebels, would be a way for Mr Assad's forces to consolidate their control over hard-won terrain. (© Daily Telegraph, London)