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Published: Monday February 10, 2014 MYT 4:20:01 AM
Updated: Monday February 10, 2014 MYT 4:20:57 AM

Islamist fighters seize Alawite village in central Syria

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Islamist fighters battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces seized control of an Alawite village in the central province of Hama on Sunday, part of an offensive to try to cut off supply routes from Damascus to the north of the country.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said the Islamists killed 25 people in the village of Maan, mainly from a pro-Assad National Defence Force militia.

But the government said the dead were mainly women and children and accused the fighters of committing a massacre on the eve of the resumption of peace talks in Geneva.

Residents of Maan, around 5 miles (8 km) east of Syria's main north-south highway, are from the same Alawite minority as the Assad family which has ruled Syria for the last four decades.

Rebels fighting to overthrow Assad are overwhelmingly from the country's Sunni Muslim majority, backed by Islamist and jihadi fighters from across the Islamic world.

"This massacre isn't the first," Social Affairs Minister Kind al-Shamat told Syrian television, saying similar attacks had taken place during the nearly three-year conflict and been ignored by the outside world.

"We feel the insistence of the international community, including those attending Geneva, to divert attention to areas which are not suffering to the same extent as these regions."

"Unfortunately we don't hear condemnation from any international organisation of these massacres taking place in these villages," she said.

Video footage released on Sunday showed a rebel fighter performing Muslim prayers on top of a municipal building after the seizure of Maan, one of several sites in Hama targeted by the rebels in recent days. Another video showed the dead body of a pro-Assad fighter.

The Observatory said most women and children had been evacuated from the village before it was taken over.

In other fighting in Hama province, the Observatory said 20 members of the security forces and National Defence Force had been killed on Saturday when a fighter from the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front blew up a car at a checkpoint in al-Jalma village.

Twelve rebels were also killed on Sunday in clashes in eastern, northern and western areas of rural Hama, it said.

More than 130,000 people, including civilians, rebel fighters and Assad's forces, have been killed in nearly three years of conflict.

The first face-to-face peace talks between government and opposition delegates in Geneva have failed to stem the bloodshed, with Saturday's death toll exceeding 300, according to figures compiled by the Britain-based Observatory.

(Reporting by Dominic Evans; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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