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Gunmen kill 11 near Syrian Christian villages in attack resident describes as sectarian

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DAMASCUS, Syria - 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 Defence 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 per cent 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.

Wadi al-Nasarra, or Valley of the Christians, has been a relatively safe area compared to other parts of Syria, and many Christians have fled there from violence elsewhere in the country.

Dhaher denied claims that the recent attacks on the areas aim to empty them from Christians, adding that sectarian rifts have "reached every spot of the homeland."

The resident who spoke to the AP said some of the dead were refugees from the central city of Homs, which has witnessed heavy clashes over the past two years. Tens of thousands of Christians left downtown districts in Syria's third largest city because of the fighting.

Attacks against Christians have not been uncommon in Syria since the country's crisis began more than two years ago. Two bishops were abducted in rebel-held areas in April and an Italian Jesuit priest, Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, went missing last month while on a trip to the rebel-held northeastern city of Raqqa. On Monday, a bomb explosion killed an eight-year old Christian girl in Homs province.

Also Saturday, a bomb exploded near a Kurdish Red Crescent ambulance in the northeastern province of Hassakeh, killing two paramedics and wounding another, the Observatory said.

Hassakeh, which borders Turkey has been witnessing almost daily clashes between Kurdish gunmen and members of al-Qaida-linked groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra or Nusra Front over the past months that left scores of people dead.

The Observatory said Friday's clashes in Hassakeh left four Kurdish gunmen and 11 jihadis dead.

Kurds, the largest ethnic minority in Syria, make up more than 10 per cent of the country's population, and have seen their loyalties split in the conflict between pro- and anti-Assad groups.

On Friday, the U.N. refugee agency said an unusually large wave of Syrian families has been pouring into Iraq's Kurdistan region this week.

Unrest in Syria began in March 2011 and later exploded into a civil war. More than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

___

Bassem Mroue reported from Beirut.

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