Under siege in other parts of Syria, Islamic State forces staged a surprise attack Thursday on two government-held villages in central Syria's Hama province that killed more than 50 people, according to media reports and sources in the region.
Fierce clashes between IS fighters and pro-Syrian government forces in the villages of Aqareb and Al-Mabujeh left at least 15 civilians and 27 pro-regime troops dead, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has monitors in the area. IS suffered 15 casualties, the observatory said.
Syria's state news agency put the death toll at 52, including 15 children. There were reports of IS militants torturing villagers and looting homes.
"My friend lost four of his children after IS slaughtered them all," Maher Esber, a political activist from the area, told VOA. "We do not know if my friend is alive, but I saw the bodies of his children."
Esber said IS was out for revenge after government forces last week inflicted heavy casualties in another village in the region controlled by IS.
"The regime bombarded that village," he said. "Many civilians were killed."
The pre-dawn attack Thursday by IS came with IS first shelling a regime checkpoint. Syrian troops had pulled back in recent days, assuming IS was weakened in the region, Esber said.
"The Syrian army moved its tanks from the area," Esber said. "IS used this to sneak into our areas."
IS previously attacked Al-Mabujeh in March 2015, killing more than 37 residents. The villages are largely populated by Sunni Muslims and members of the Alawite clan tied to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Central Hama province is regarded as a no man's land where parts are under IS, rebel or government control.
IS is facing a major assault from U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish and Arab forces in northern Syria in an offensive toward Raqqa, IS's de facto capital in Syria.