By Alexander Dziadosz
BEIRUT, Jan 23 (Reuters) - Rebels in Syria have burned and looted the religious sites of minorities, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday, as the longest and deadliest of the Arab Spring revolts becomes increasingly sectarian.
The 22-month-old rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad started as a peaceful protest movement but has turned into civil war, pitting mostly Sunni Muslim rebels against a state security and military establishment dominated by Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
In the northern Idlib province, where rebels have taken swathes of territory from government forces, the New York-based rights group said opposition fighters destroyed a Shi'ite "husseiniya" - a religious site devoted to Hussein, a martyr in Shi'ite tradition.
A video published online showed rebels hoisting assault rifles in the air and cheering as the site in the village of Zarzour, taken by rebels in December, burned in the background.
In the video, which Reuters cannot independently verify, one man announces the "destruction of the dens of the Shi'ites and Rafida," a derogatory term used against Shi'ites.
Human Rights Watch said local rebel fighters had blamed Syria's government for the damage but residents said the insurgents had started the fire when they took control of the village.
Regional Sunni power Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Iran have backed opposing sides in Syria's civil war, raising the prospect the country could become a frontline in a sectarian divide and could suck in neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey.
The conflict has killed more than 60,000 people and pushed more than 650,000 to flee the country, the United Nations estimates.
Indiscipline and looting by rebels in some areas has also undermined civilian support for their cause, especially among minority groups, and hampered their ability to advance against government forces.
Foreign backers of the opposition are wary of supporting a revolt in which religious hardliners have grown in prominence.
In the western Latakia province, Human Rights Watch quoted residents as saying gunmen working "in the name of the opposition" had broken into and stolen from Christian churches in two villages.
A resident in Jdeideh, one of the villages, reported that gunmen had broken into the local church, stolen and fired shots inside, after government troops had fled, the rights group said. Local rebels denied they attacked the church, it added.
"While the motivation for the church break-ins may have been theft rather than a religious attack, opposition fighters have a responsibility to protect religious sites in areas under their control from willful damage and theft," Human Rights Watch said.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)