By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
AMMAN, June 7 (Reuters) - Tattooed youths with AK-47s descend from hilltops onto villages pounded by Syrian artillery and break into homes, slit the throats of women and children or hack them to death. They leave, sometimes carrying bodies to hide traces of the massacre.
Accounts like this from witnesses and opposition campaigners are heard with mounting frequency in north and central Syria, centres of the 15-month revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.
Invariably, activists blame the feared "shabbiha" militia, the most ruthless opponents of the uprising.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights, an opposition group documenting Assad's crackdown on the revolt, said shabbiha militiamen entered the tiny Sunni Muslim village of Mazraat al-Qubeir on Wednesday after tanks shelled houses and phone lines were cut.
They killed at least 78 civilians and took away 37 bodies, according to the organisation.
Security forces bussed in the shabbiha from nearby Alawite villages, it said, the same pattern that was seen in the Sunni Muslim town of Houla two weeks ago and - on a lesser but no less gruesome scale - on the outskirts of Homs, Syria's third largest city.
Syrian authorities have blamed foreign-backed Islamist "terrorist groups" for the killings.
From humble beginnings as a smuggling and blackmail racket set up by Assad's relatives in the coastal city of Latakia, the shabbiha have grown into feared militia death squads blamed for the worst atrocities in the revolt.
The protests, now coupled with an armed insurgency against 42 years of family rule by Assad and his late father, pit the ruling elite, from the country's minority Alawite sect, an off shoot of Shi'ite Islam, against the Sunni-led protest movement.
As Assad increasingly turned to his relatives to strengthen his grip on the majority Sunni Muslim country after inheriting power in 2000, the shabbiha began appearing in Latakia and the nearby Alawite Mountains.
Cousins of Assad drove blacked-out Mercedes S class cars, nicknamed "shabbah" or ghosts, with an arsenal of rifles aboard, forcing their way aggressively through the traffic. The name caught on and was adopted by the gunmen to describe themselves as they expanded their racket.
They swiftly developed with state support into a fully-fledged militia after the uprising. Directed by the security forces or ruling Baath Party officials, they put down demonstrations in cities across the country, often by killing demonstrators with live bullets.
At pro-government rallies in Damascus and other cities earlier this year, shabbiha members carried banners that read: "Assad: We are your shabbiha forever," and "Assad: your name is etched on our AK-47s."
At the beginning of the revolt, security forces recruited thousands of Sunni Muslims to reinforce the shabbiha's Alawite core, especially after Assad released thousands from jail in a general amnesty last year.
The shabbiha, however, have became more dependent on recruitment from the Alawite community as the revolt became more militarised and rebels began targeting Assad's forces, according to opposition sources and diplomats following the uprising.
The massacres - and the increasing risk of being assassinated by rebels - have also put off many Sunnis, although their pay at one point reached $100 a day, a fortune in a country where average salaries are $200 to $300 a month.
"The shabbiha have become a localised Alawite militia present mostly in mixed areas. Their mission is to terrorise the civilian population and conduct ethnic cleansing," said a diplomat.
Activists say the drive to recruit, arm and train shabbiha from the Alawite villages, many as young as 15 years old, increased as more Sunnis abandoned the militia.
"The shabbiha are driven by a feeling of impunity - that they can kill as many Sunnis as they can while Russia's support for the regime removes any possibility of international intervention," said Fawaz Tello, a veteran opposition activist who fled Syria last year.
But the militia is taking hits. Lack of Sunni support has all but forced the shabbiha out of the city of Deir al-Zor, where they were instrumental in putting down demonstrations against Assad last year.
"The shabbiha have become nearly extinct in Deir al-Zor. They have dwindled from several thousands to a few hundred," said Abu Qahtan, an opposition activist in the city.
"Even the criminal elements among them have switched sides and the nature of the tribal society in Deir al-Zor did not allow killings by regime forces to go unpunished without serious retribution," he added
The activist, who was not using his real name for fear of arrest, said the Alawite core of the shabbiha forces was "imbued with an ideology that killing Sunnis corrects a historic wrong", namely the marginalisation of the Alawite minority.
"The Alawites, in a way, were mostly at the lower end of the social ladder in Syria, but that has not been true since they took over power five decades ago and I am not sure what wrong the present Sunnis did to the Alawites."
In Damascus, residents and activists said the proportion of Sunnis in the shabbiha had dwindled after 11 shabbiha were assassinated in the staunchly conservative Sunni Damascus district of Maidan during the past two months.
"Even Sunni shabbiha are sometimes being liquidated by Alawite shabbiha because they deem them not trustworthy," said Damascus-based activist Raed al-Shami.
"You don't find Damascenes but you still find Sunnis in the shabbiha, especially criminals released last year," he said, adding that most Alawite shabbiha recruitment in Damascus came from the hilltop Alawite neighbourhoods of Qudsaya, Sitta Watmanin, Mezze Jabal and Ish al-Warwar.
In the Sunni Muslim city of Hama, just 20 km (12 miles) east of the location where activists reported a massacre on Wednesday, a potent force of about 3,000 shabbiha remain in position.
"The shabbiha in Hama city are from the Alawite villages around. There is one Sunni village, Qahtaneh, that is all shabbiha, because they follow a general in the security apparatus who runs a smuggling racket with the blessing of the regime," said activist Raed Farhoud. (Editing by Giles Elgood)
BEFORE YOU GO
07/13/2012 1:00 PM EDT
Car Bomb In Damascus
Syrian policemen inspect the site of a car bomb explosion on Mazzeh highway in the capital Damascus on July 13, 2012. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/GettyImages)
07/13/2012 12:00 PM EDT
Susan Rice Condemns Killings
U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice tweets:
@ AmbassadorRice :
#Syria regime turned artillery, tanks and helicopters on its own men & women. It unleashed knife-wielding shabiha gangs on its own children.
07/13/2012 11:58 AM EDT
Russia Condemns Massacre
Russia says international envoy Kofi Annan will visit Moscow on Monday to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria. Russia also called for an inquiry into an alleged massacre that took place in the village of Tramseh on Thursday. "We have no doubt that this wrongdoing serves the interests of those powers that are not seeking peace but persistently seek to sow the seeds of interconfessional and civilian conflict on Syrian soil," Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement, according to Reuters. Moscow did not apportion blame for the killings.
Read more on Reuters.com.
07/13/2012 11:55 AM EDT
Footage Of Massacre Aftermath (WARNING: VIDEO CONTAINS DISTURBING IMAGES)
The Associated Press obtained a video that purports to show the aftermath of an alleged massacre in the village of Tramseh, near Hama.
07/13/2012 9:34 AM EDT
How Do Syrian Fighters Get Their Arms?
How do Syria's fighters get their arms? An overview put together by Reuters explains that there are three gateways to the country -- Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.
Syrian rebels are smuggling small arms into Syria through a network of land and sea routes involving cargo ships and trucks moving through Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, maritime intelligence and Free Syrian Army (FSA) officers say.
Western and regional powers deny any suggestion they are involved in gun running. Their interest in the sensitive border region lies rather in screening to ensure powerful weapons such as surface to air missiles do not find their way to Islamist or other militants.
Read the full report here.
07/13/2012 9:10 AM EDT
Activists Report New Massacre (WARNING: GRAPHIC PHOTOS)
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a victim wounded by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. The accounts, some of which claim more than 200 people were killed in the violence Thursday, could not be independently confirmed, but would mark the latest in a string of brutal offensives by Syrian forces attempting to crush the rebellion. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a man mourning a victim killed by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
07/12/2012 6:50 PM EDT
Hama Revolutionary Council: More Than 220 Killed
According to the Hama Revolutionary Council, a Syrian opposition group, more than 220 people have been killed in a new alleged massacre in Taramseh. Earlier reports said more than 100 people were killed. "More than 220 people fell today in Taramseh," the Council said in a statement. "They died from bombardment by tanks and helicopters, artillery shelling and summary executions."
Fadi Sameh, an opposition activist from Taramseh, told Reuters he had left the town before the reported massacre but was in touch with residents. "It appears that Alawite militiamen from surrounding villages descended on Taramseh after its rebel defenders pulled out, and started killing the people. Whole houses have been destroyed and burned from the shelling," Sameh claimed.
Read more on Reuters.com.
07/12/2012 6:17 PM EDT
Syrian State TV: 'Large Numbers Of Terrorists Killed'
Syrian activist Rami Jarrah tweets that Syrian State TV has confirmed deaths in Tremseh. "Terrorists" is often the term used by the Syrian regime for opposition forces.
@ AlexanderPageSY :
Syrian State TV: clashes between security apparatus & terrorists in #Tremseh of #Hama leaves large numbers of terrorists killed #Syria
07/12/2012 5:36 PM EDT
Update: Death Toll In New Massacre Reportedly More Than 200
@ Reuters :
UPDATE: DEATH TOLL IN SYRIAN FORCES' ATTACK ON VILLAGE IN SYRIA'S HAMA REGION IS MORE THAN 200, MOSTLY CIVILIANS - OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS