BEIRUT: The Islamic State group attacked several government-held villages in central Syria on Thursday, capturing at least one of them in violence that left dozens of people dead, including three members of the same family.
The attack in the central Hama province targeted villages where most residents belong to the Ismaili branch of Shiite Islam, raising fears that the extremists might massacre them, as they have in other minority communities in Syria and Iraq.
The villages are located near the highway that links the capital, Damascus, to the northern city of Aleppo, but state media said traffic was not affected by the clashes.
Government forces are on the offensive against the extremists in other parts of Syria, mostly in the northern province of Aleppo and the central Homs region. U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led forces are meanwhile marching toward the extremists’ de-facto capital of Raqqa, in northern Syria.
Syria’s state news agency SANA said troops and pro-government gunmen repelled the IS attack on villages in Hama province, adding that the militants also tried to attack the Damascus-Aleppo highway but were repelled there as well.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said IS captured several army positions as well as the village of Aqareb al-Safi, killing 19 troops and 12 civilians. It said troops launched a counteroffensive under the cover of airstrikes.
The Observatory said the 31 killed include a man and his two sons slain in the village of Mabouja, adding that others are believed to have been killed as well.
The IS-linked Aamaq news agency said the group captured Aqareb al-Safi and Mabouja. It identified residents as members of President Bashar Assad’s Alawite sect, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam. The Sunni extremists view Shiites as apostates deserving of death. IS has massacred thousands of Shiites and other opponents in Syria and Iraq, often boasting about the killings and circulating photos and videos of them online.
“Dozens of people are missing but it is not clear if they were kidnapped by Daesh,” said the Observatory’s chief Rami Abdurrahman, using an Arabic acronym to refer to the group. He said IS deployed snipers on roofs of some buildings in Aqareb al-Safi.
State TV said two people were wounded in IS shelling on the nearby town of Salamiyeh.