DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Gunmen shot dead 11 people, mostly Christians, near a town in central Syria on Saturday, state media and activists said, an attack described by a local resident as aimed at members of the religious minority.
The resident, citing eyewitnesses, told The Associated Press that the gunmen randomly opened fire on roadside restaurants in a drive-by shooting outside Ein al-Ajouz as Christians were celebrating a feast day. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The state-run SANA news agency described the attack as a "massacre" and said women and children were among the dead.
Activists however said that many of those killed were pro-government militiamen manning checkpoints.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that nine of those killed were Christians. It said rebels seeking to overthrow President Bashar Assad attacked checkpoints manned by the pro-government National Defense Forces militia, killing five of them. It said the other six were civilians, including two women.
A Facebook page run by pro-government activists in the area said a checkpoint was targeted and six civilians and five pro-government militiamen were killed. It posted portraits of five "martyrs" from the militia wearing military fatigues, saying the attackers came from the nearby rebel-held town of al-Hosn where extremist rebel groups are known to operate.
Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Syria's population, say they are particularly vulnerable to the violence sweeping the country of 22 million people.
Many rebels, who are mostly Sunni Muslims, consider Christians to be supporters of Assad's regime. The regime is dominated by members of Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and members of some other religious minorities consider it a bulwark against extremists among the country's Sunni majority.
SANA said the attack occurred after midnight Saturday on a road in Homs province linking Ein al-Ajouz with another Christian village, Nasrah.
Eleya Dhaher, archbishop of the Wadi al-Nasarra region that includes the villages where the attack occurred, said 15 people were killed in the "massacre." ''It seems that tension and the sectarian rift have reached a level where no area can enjoy peace," he said by telephone.