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BEIRUT, Lebanon — After dragging 46 bodies from the streets near his hometown on the Syrian coast, Omar lost count. For four days, he said, he could not eat, remembering the burned body of a baby just a few months old; a fetus ripped from a woman’s belly; a friend lying dead, his dog still standing guard.
Omar survived what residents, antigovernment activists and human rights monitors are calling one of the darkest recent episodes in the Syrian war, a massacre in government-held Tartus Province that has inflamed sectarian divisions, revealed new depths of depravity and made the prospect of stitching the country back together appear increasingly difficult.
That mass killing this month was one in a series of recent sectarian-tinged attacks that Syrians on both sides have seized on to demonize each other. Government and rebel fighters have filmed themselves committing atrocities for the world to see.
Footage routinely shows pro-government fighters beating, killing and mutilating Sunni rebel detainees, forcing them to refer to President Bashar al-Assad as God. One rebel commander recently filmed himself cutting out an organ of a dead pro-government fighter, biting it and promising the same fate to Alawites, members of Mr. Assad’s Shiite Muslim sect.
That lurid violence has fueled pessimism about international efforts to end the fighting. As the United States and Russia work to organize peace talks next month between Mr. Assad and his opponents, the ever more extreme carnage makes reconciliation seem more remote.
Nadim Houry, the director of Human Rights Watch in Beirut, said he sensed “a complete disconnect between diplomacy and events on the ground.”
“The conflict is getting more visceral,” he said. Without concrete confidence-building measures, he said, and with more people “seeing it as an existential struggle, it’s hard to imagine what the negotiations would look like.”
The recent executions, reconstructed by speaking with residents and human rights monitors, unfolded over three days in two Sunni enclaves in the largely Alawite and Christian province, first in the village of Bayda and then in the Ras al-Nabeh district of the nearby city of Baniyas.
Government troops and supporting militias went house to house, killing entire families and smashing men’s heads with concrete blocks.
Antigovernment activists provided lists of 322 victims they said had been identified. Videos showed at least a dozen dead children. Hundreds more people are reported missing.
“How can we reach a point of national forgiveness?” said Ahmad Abu al-Khair, a well-known blogger from Bayda. He said that the attacks had begun there, and that 800 of about 6,000 residents were missing.Slideshow: Syria uprising (on this page)
Multiple video images that residents said they had recorded in Bayda and Ras al-Nabeh — of small children lying where they died, some embracing one another or their parents — were so searing that even some government supporters rejected Syrian television’s official version of events, that the army had “crushed a number of terrorists.”
One prominent pro-government writer, Bassam al-Qadi, took the unusual, risky step of publicly blaming loyalist gunmen for the killings and accusing the government of “turning a blind eye to criminals and murderers in the name of ‘defending the homeland.’ “
Images of the killings in and around Baniyas have transfixed Syrians. In one video that residents say shows victims in Ras al-Nabeh, the bodies of at least seven children and several adults lie tangled and bloody on a rain-soaked street. A baby girl, naked from the waist down, stares skyward, tiny hands balled into fists. Her round face is unblemished, but her belly is darkened and her legs and feet are charred into black cinders.
Opposition leaders called the Baniyas killings sectarian “cleansing” aimed at pushing Sunnis out of territory that may form part of an Alawite rump state if Syria ultimately fractures. Mr. Houry said the killings inevitably raised such fears, though there was no evidence of such a broad policy. Tens of thousands of displaced Sunnis are staying in the province, largely safe.
Not all reactions followed sectarian lines. Survivors said Christian neighbors had helped survivors escape, and on Tuesday, Alawite and Christian residents of the province said they were starting an aid campaign for victims to “defy the sectarian wind.”
Mr. Qadi, the pro-government writer, labeled the killers “criminals who do not represent the Alawites” and called on the government to immediately “acknowledge what happened” and arrest “those hyenas.”
He added: “This has happened in a lot of places. Baniyas is only the most recent one.”
When the uprising began in March 2011 as a peaceful movement, Sunnis in Bayda raised banners denouncing Sunni extremists, seeking to reassure Alawites that they opposed Mr. Assad, not his sect, said Mr. Abu al-Khair, the blogger.
In May 2011, security forces stormed the village, killing demonstrators, including women.
After that, Bayda remained largely quiet. Most activists and would-be fighters left. But residents said they often helped defecting soldiers escape, a pattern they believe set off the violence.
Activists said that on May 2, around 4 a.m., security forces came to detain defectors, and were ambushed in a fight that killed several government fighters — the first known armed clash in Baniyas. The government called in reinforcements and, by 7 a.m., began shelling the village.
A pro-government television channel showed a reporter on a hill above Bayda. Smoke rose from green slopes and houses below, where, the reporter said, “terrorists” were hiding. A group of men the reporter described as government fighters walked unhurriedly through a square.
“God willing, Bayda will be finished today,” a uniformed man said on camera.
What happened next was described in Skype interviews with four survivors who for their safety gave only nicknames, an activist in Baniyas, and Mr. Abu al-Khair, who said he had spoken from Damascus with more than 30 witnesses.
Men in partial or full military dress went door to door, separating men — and boys 10 and older — from women and younger children.
Residents said some gunmen were from the National Defense Forces, the new framework for pro-government militias, mainly Alawites in the Baniyas area. They bludgeoned and shot men, shot or stabbed families to death and burned houses and bodies.
The activist in Baniyas, Abu Obada, said security forces had told people to gather in the square, and some Bayda villagers, fearing a massacre, attacked them with weapons abandoned by defectors. Other residents disputed that or were unsure because they had been hiding.
A cousin of Mr. Abu al-Khair’s, who gave her name as Warda al-Hurra, or the Free Rose, said her female relatives had described being herded to a bedroom with children, and heard male relatives crying out in pain nearby. At one point, her cousin Ahmed, 10, and brother Othman, 16, were brought in, injured and “limp as a towel,” she said.
Her aunt begged a guard to let them stay, but he said, “They’ll kill me if I make one single mistake.”
Soon another gunman shouted at him and took the boys away. They are still missing.
The gunmen brought more women, until there were 100 in the room. He ordered the guard to kill them. The guard said: “Don’t be rash! Take a breath.”
The man relented. The women heard gunmen celebrating in the square; later they were released. When they ventured out, there were “bodies on every corner,” Ms. Hurra said.
Another resident, Abu Abdullah, said he had fled his house and returned after dark to find stabbed, charred bodies of women and children dumped in the square, and 30 of his relatives dead.
Omar, of nearby Ras al-Nabeh, the man who had dragged dozens of bodies from the streets, said he had helped Bayda residents pick up bodies, placing 46 in two houses and the rest in a mosque, then had run away, fearing the return of the killers. He said he had recognized some bodies, including the village sheik, Omar al-Bayassi, whom some considered pro-government.
One video said to be from Bayda showed eight dead children on a bed. Two toddlers cuddled face to face; a baby rested on a dead woman’s shoulder.
On May 4, shelling and gunfire began to hit Ras al-Nabeh. Abu Yehya, a resident, hid in his house with his wife and two children, who stayed quiet: “Their instincts took over.” Two days later, he said, he emerged to find his neighbors, a family of 13, shot dead against a wall.
On May 6, security forces allowed in Red Crescent workers. Bodies were tossed and bulldozed into trucks and dumped in a mass grave, Mr. Abu al-Khair said.
Residents posted smiling pictures of children they said had been killed: Moaz al-Biassi, 1 year old, and his sister Afnan, 3. Three sisters, Halima, Sara, and Aisha. Curly-haired Noor, and Fatima, too little to have much hair but already sporting earrings.
Mr. Obada said residents on Tuesday were indignant when a government delegation offered compensation for damaged houses, saying, “What do you get if you rebuild the house and the whole family is dead?”
Displaced Sunnis who had sheltered there are fleeing, and some say Alawites are no longer welcome.
“It’s now impossible for them to stay in Syria,” Omar said.
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, and Sebnem Arsu from Antakya, Turkey.
This story, "An Atrocity in Syria, With No Victim Too Small," originally appeared in the New York Times.
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