Reuters International

BEIRUT (Reuters) - A group monitoring the Syrian civil war said insurgents killed at least 19 civilians after capturing an Alawite village from government control in western Syria on Thursday, but insurgents denied targeting civilians.

Residents from the village of al-Zara interviewed by state media said rebels had killed women, children and livestock.

Dozens of people are still missing, believed to have been abducted from the village, which lies close to a main highway linking the western cities of Homs and Hama, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Friday.

The Observatory said the attackers included Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham and the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.

An Ahrar al-Sham spokesman said: "Civilians were not targeted. On the contrary factions made great effort to spare civilians and deal with prisoners humanely."

The Observatory cited sources saying the 19 dead, who included six women, were from families of fighters loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and were killed as rebels stormed houses during their attack on al-Zara.

An image shared on social media purported to show rebel fighters next to the bodies of two women in al-Zara.

Responding to the image, an alliance of rebel groups behind the attack said the women had been killed because they were armed and opened fire during the fighting.

It said in a statement that the way some fighters had dealt with enemy corpses as shown in the photo was against their religious values and the perpetrators would be held to account.

HIDING IN THE ATTIC

The army and its allies trying to retake the Alawite village have used air strikes and barrel bombs, and were still fighting insurgents nearby, the monitoring group said.

The Alawites are a minority sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam. Assad, an Alawite, is supported by Shi'ite fighters from Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah in the war against mainly Sunni Muslim rebels, backed by regional Sunni Muslim powers.

At least eight of the rebels had been killed, the Observatory said. The insurgents had also captured government fighters.

Syrian state television broadcast interviews with men and children who had fled the attack. They said rebels killed women, children and elderly people, slaughtered livestock and destroyed houses as they attacked.

"I saw armed men coming into houses, they started fighting and destroying things. So I hid in the attic and waited there...," said Isa Rai, a young boy interviewed by Syrian television. "Then at night I came out when the army reached us."

A Feb. 27 cessation of hostilities agreement brokered by the United States and Russia reduced violence in western Syria for a short time. It has been reduced to tatters, however, by increased fighting in the city of Aleppo and other areas.

The village of al-Zara is about 35 km (22 miles) north of Homs and a similar distance south of Hama, an area which was among the first to be hit when Russia's air force intervened to support Assad last September.

(Reporting by Lisa Barrington and Tom Perry; Editing by Toby Davis and Dominic Evans)

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