Hundreds of Sunni families fled the Syrian coastal town of Baniyas yesterday after reports that dozens of people, including children, had been killed by pro-government gunmen in the area.
The deaths in the Ras Al Nabaa district of Baniyas came two days after state forces and pro-government militias killed at least 50 Sunnis in a "massacre" at the nearby village of Bayda, activists said.
After the killings, regime forces began shelling several Sunni neighbourhoods of Baniyas, prompting residents to flee the area early yesterday.
"I estimate that hundreds of families left and headed for nearby towns like Jableh and Tartous," said Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition monitoring group. "But now the army is turning people back at the checkpoints outside the town, telling them to go back to Baniyas, that nothing is wrong. There are also announcements going out on mosque loudspeakers telling people to return home."
The group said "the bodies of dozens of citizens" killed in Baniyas on Friday were found yesterday.
"We have identified 62 citizens by their names, photos, or videos, including 14 children," it said.
"The number could rise because there are dozens of citizens who are still missing," the Observatory added.
The group posted a video online showing the bodies of 10 people it said were killed in Ras Al Nabaa, half of them children. Some were lying in pools of blood, and one toddler was covered in burns, her clothes singed and her legs charred.
The mass killing is the second "massacre" to be reported in the area within a few days.
On Thursday, the observatory said at least 50 people had been killed in the Sunni village of Bayda, south of the coastal city.
"Witnesses from the village say no less than 50 civilians were killed, including women and children," the group said.
The Observatory, which is based in Britain and gathers its information from activists on the ground in Syria, blamed the killings in Baniyas on the National Defence Forces (NDF), a new paramilitary group made up mostly of fighters from minorities that back president Bashar Al Assad.
Trained and often directed by the military, the NDF describes itself as a reserve force for the army. The group has taken over the regionalised role of more informal Alawite militias known as shabbiha, which were accused of previous massacres of Sunnis.
The activist reports and videos on the killings could not be independently verified as the Syrian government restricts access for independent media.
The killings in Bayda brought wide condemnation as footage of dead children were widely circulated on TV stations and social media sites.
The US state department yesterday said it was horrified by the report of the Bayda massacre and said the Syrian government was stepping up violence against civilians.
"We strongly condemn atrocities against the civilian population and reinforce our solidarity with the Syrian people," said a US state department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki.
"Those responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law and serious violations and abuses of human rights law must be held accountable."
Yesterday's violence in Syria's coastal area occurred as the president made his second public appearance in a week in the capital, Damascus.
Syrian state TV said Mr Al Assad, who rarely appears in public, visited a Damascus campus and inaugurated a statue dedicated to "martyrs" from Syrian universities who died in the country's uprising and civil war.
Syria's crisis, which began in March 2011 with pro-democracy protests and later turned into a civil war that has killed an estimated 70,000 people, has largely broken along sectarian lines.
The Sunni majority forms the backbone of the rebellion, while Mr Al Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, anchors the regime's security services and the military's officer corps. Other minorities, such as Christians, largely support Mr Al Assad or stand on the sidelines, worried that the regime's fall would bring about a more strict Islamist rule.
Syria's mountainous coastal region is the Alawite heartland, although it is also dotted with Sunni villages
Elsewhere in Syria, activists and state media said troops have captured most of the villages and towns around the town of Qusair near the border with Lebanon.
* With reporting from Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse