DAMASCUS - Al-Qaida fighters and other ultraconservative Sunni insurgents seized a predominantly Alawite village in central Syria on Thursday, sparking fears of sectarian violence as families from the village were reported missing by activists.
Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi said “terrorists” were killing residents of the village of Zaara, previously controlled by the government. Syrian state media said insurgents had looted and destroyed homes.
Clashes continued into the afternoon as government or allied Russian aircraft pounded rebel positions, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding that seven militants were killed. The Local Coordination Committees, an activist-run network, said the insurgents killed over 30 pro-government fighters in the clashes.
Ahrar al-Sham, an ultraconservative Sunni militant group, led the assault on Zaara, along with the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s Syrian franchise, which often fights alongside opposition factions. The Observatory, which covers both sides of the conflict through a network of local activists, said families disappeared from Zaara after the militants took over.
Syria’s conflict began with peaceful protests against President Bashar Assad but escalated into a civil war after a brutal government crackdown and the rise of an armed insurgency. It became increasingly sectarian with the rise of Sunni insurgent groups and the arrival of Shiite militants from across the region to fight alongside Assad’s government.
Assad and his family are Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while the majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims. Both the government and the opposition claim to represent the entire country with its various religious minorities, but armed groups on both sides have carried out sectarian attacks.
The International Committee for the Red Cross had to cancel a 24-truck aid convoy to the town of al-Houla, near Zaara, citing security concerns. The ICRC did not say whether it was related to the clashes in Zaara.
It was to be the first aid delivery to the town since March, when aid reached 70,000 residents in the area for the first time since May 2015.
Another aid convoy by the ICRC, in conjunction with the United Nations and SARC, was also turned back outside Daraya, a suburb of Damascus besieged by pro-government forces.
ICRC spokesman Pawel Krzysiek, who was traveling with the convoy, said it wasn’t allowed through the last government checkpoint.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters that the U.N. special envoy and the U.N. resident humanitarian coordinator “decided to abort the mission to Daraya because of the removal of nutrition items for children, other than vaccines, from the U.N. convoy at the last checkpoint.”
Dujarric said it is “extremely disappointing” that the items were removed “despite the earlier approvals that had been obtained from the government of Syria.”
It would have been the first aid delivery to the area since November 2012. The U.N. estimates the suburb’s current population is between 4,000 and 8,000 people, down from over 70,000 before the war.
After the aid convoy was turned back, government forces shelled the town with mortar rounds, killing a father and his son and wounding at least five civilians, the London-based Amnesty International said in a statement.
The Local Council of Daraya, a Facebook page operated by activists inside the town, posted a video following the shelling showing what appears to be more than two bodies.
In another video posted before the convoy was turned back, women said they needed food. “These women and children and girls have no food. They have no clean water. No milk. God won’t allow such a thing,” said a woman with a baby on her lap.
The U.N. Security Council expressed “outrage” Thursday “at all recent attacks in Syria directed against civilians and civilian objects including medical facilities, as well as all indiscriminate attacks.” It said such acts “may amount to war crimes.”
In Geneva, the U.N. humanitarian aid coordinator for Syria expressed dismay about “disappointing” levels of access to besieged and hard-to-reach areas so far this month. Jan Egeland said his office hopes to get aid to about 905,000 people this month.
Elsewhere in Syria, rebels repelled a government offensive north of Aleppo that would have threatened the only supply route to the rebel-held portion of the city, Syria’s former commercial capital.
An interim cease-fire over the divided city, which brought a few days of calm after two weeks of shelling and bombardment, expired Wednesday night.
World powers plan to meet on Syria next week in Vienna, with another round of U.N.-led, indirect peace negotiations between Syria’s government and the opposition expected to follow some days later.