Dozens killed in Syria's Banias

Fierce clashes between troops and rebels erupted on Thursday for the first time in a Sunni Muslim village in Syria's Alawite-majority coastal region of Banias, killing dozens, including soldiers, a watchdog said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fighting broke out in the morning in the northwestern region, killing dozens of people. Among them were at least seven soldiers, as well as women and children, some of whom were "summarily executed."

Syria's official SANA news agency said troops killed "terrorists" -- the regime term for insurgents -- and seized arms in an operation targeting rebels.

The opposition Syrian National Coalition accused the regime of seeking revenge from the people of Banias because they were among the first to rise against the government of President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011.

"Since this morning, the army and pro-regime forces have been besieging the village of Bayda at the southern entrance to the town of Banias," said the Britain-based Observatory.

It said the fighting is "the first of its kind in the Banias area," since the uprising against Assad's rule broke out more than two years ago.

The watchdog, which relies on activists and medics on the ground for its information, said there were "conflicting reports concerning the martyrs who fell at the hands of the regular forces and their militias in the village of Bayda."

"Witnesses from the village say no less than 50 civilians were killed, including women and children," it said.

"Some were summarily executed, shot to death, stabbed or set on fire," the Observatory said, adding that the fate of dozens of villagers remains unknown.

"The army has cut off all communications with the village and it is very difficult to get a precise toll," Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

Earlier the watchdog reported "at least seven soldiers killed and 20 others wounded."

SANA, quoting an unnamed top official, said regime forces "killed terrorists in Bayda and the village of Mirqab, as well as in the (Sunni) district of Ras al-Nabah," in the port of Banias.

The agency said troops seized two caches of arms and ammunition.

The Banias region is predominantly Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam and the sect of President Assad, but has several Sunni villages to the south.

In the south of the port city, where there is also a large Sunni population, "sustained gunfire coming from the army was heard, and the security services are out in the streets to terrify residents," the watchdog said.

Witnesses have seen "ambulances taking soldiers wounded in the fighting to Bayda," it added.

The opposition Coalition calling Assad's government a "regime of hatred", said the soldiers and militiamen carried out "ugly crimes, including summary executions... to seek revenge... because the regime hasn't forgiven Banias and Bayda for standing alongside Daraa... at the start of the Syrian revolution."

Banias, along with Daraa in the south, the cradle of the uprising, saw some of the first demonstrations against the regime in March 2011.

The Observatory said most young Sunnis left the Banias area after an army offensive in May 2011, two months after the start of the uprising against the Assad regime.

"They left because they were afraid of being arrested or forced to join the army," Abdel Rahman said.

The region's three main coastal cities of Banias, Latakia and Tartus and their surrounding areas form the "Alawite heartland" where analysts say Assad could seek refuge if his regime falls.