BEIRUT — Thousands of Sunni Muslims fled a Syrian coastal town Saturday, a day after reports circulated that dozens of people, including children, had been killed by pro-government gunmen in the area, activists said.
The violence occurred as embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad made his second public appearance in a week in the capital, Damascus. Also, Israeli officials confirmed that the country's air force carried out an airstrike against Syria, saying it targeted a shipment of advanced missiles bound for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, an ally of the Assad regime.
It was the second Israeli strike this year against Syria and the latest salvo in its long-running effort to disrupt Hezbollah's quest to build an arsenal capable of defending against Israel's air force and spreading destruction inside the Jewish state.
The violence in the coastal region of Syria underscored the sectarian nature of the two-year conflict that has killed tens of thousands and sent more than 1 million Syrians refugees to neighboring countries.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said around 4,000 people were fleeing from the predominantly Sunni southern parts of the Mediterranean city of Banias amid fears that pro-government gunmen "might commit a massacre."
There were conflicting reports of the death toll in Banias on Friday. The Observatory said at least 62 people, including 14 children, were killed in Ras al-Nabeh, a neighborhood in Banias, but that the number could rise as many people are still missing. The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said 102 people were killed.
The Observatory said security forces were checking people's identity cards and asking them to return to Banias so that the situation could appear normal. It said those fleeing were mostly heading to the city of Tartus to the south and the town of Jableh just north of Banias.
Banias residents told The Associated Press by telephone that the central market was mostly closed Saturday amid fears of more violence. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals.
The reported exodus from Banias came after activists said Friday that regime troops and gunmen from nearby Alawite areas beat, stabbed and shot at least 50 people in the Sunni Muslim village of Bayda, near Banias.
The killings in Bayda brought wide condemnation as footage of dead children were widely circulated on TV stations and social media sites.