The Islamic State group attacked several government-held villages in central Syria on Thursday, capturing at least one of them in violence that left 52 people dead including more than two dozen women and children, some of whom were beheaded, as well as Syrian troops, according to state media, medical officials and an opposition monitoring group.
The attack in the central Hama province targeted villages where most residents belong to the Ismaili branch of Shiite Islam, raising fears the extremists might massacre them, as they have in other minority communities in Syria and Iraq.
The villages are located near the town of Salamiyeh and the highway that links the capital, Damascus, to the northern city of Aleppo, but state media said traffic was not affected.
State news agency SANA said militants were able to storm homes in the southern part of the Aqareb al-Safi village, adding that government forces repelled them, pushing them back toward the desert.
The head of the National Hospital in Salamiyeh, Dr. Noufal Safar, said the hospital received 52 bodies, including 11 women and 17 children. He said some of them were beheaded and others had their limbs amputated.
"They were brought with all forms of deformations but most of them appear to have died as a result of gunfire," Safar told The Associated Press by telephone. He added that most of the dead and wounded were brought by ambulances.
Safar quoted some of the wounded people as saying the extremists began storming homes and beheading women inside.
Rami Razzouk, a coroner at the hospital who inspected the bodies, said the children brought in were mostly dismembered, while most of the men died from shelling or heavy machine gunfire.
He said at least nine children were beaten with heavy objects such as bricks or stones on their heads or necks. Razzouk said there were "a couple of children whose heads were fully dismembered because of the beating."
Two of the children "had most of their limbs removed so they had to be carried in blankets" and two men were shot in the eye, he said. He said 120 people were wounded.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said that 52 people were killed in the fighting, with the dead including 15 civilians, 27 Syrian soldiers and 10 unidentified people.
SANA said 40 people were wounded.
Fighting Islamic State
The attack on Aqareb al-Safi came as government forces are on the offensive against the extremists in other parts of Syria, mostly in the northern province of Aleppo and the central Homs region and to the east. U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led forces are, meanwhile, marching toward the extremists' de-facto capital of Raqqa, in northern Syria.
The IS-linked Aamaq news agency said the group captured Aqareb al-Safi and Mabouja. It identified residents as members of President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite sect, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam. The Sunni extremists view Shiites as apostates deserving of death. IS has massacred thousands of Shiites and other opponents in Syria and Iraq, often boasting about the killings and circulating photos and videos of them online.
Aamaq claimed that 100 Syrian troops and pro-government gunmen were killed in the fighting.
"Dozens of people are missing but it is not clear if they were kidnapped by Daesh," said the Observatory's chief Rami Abdurrahman, using an Arabic acronym to refer to the group. He said IS deployed snipers on roofs of some buildings in Aqareb al-Safi.
State TV said two people were wounded in IS shelling in Salamiyeh.
Also on Thursday, SANA reported that Assad met with Iraq's national security adviser, Faleh al-Fayad, to discuss steps to improve coordination between their countries' militaries in the anti-terrorism campaign along their shared border.