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Syrian government warplanes bombed a predominantly Sunni village and killed at least 20 people including 6 children , opposition activists said, as government forces pushed to retake territory in the western heartland of President Bashar Assad’s Alawite sect.

The capture by the Syrian rebels last week of 11 villages in the regime stronghold of Latakia province was a symbolic blow to Assad, whose troops with support by Hezbollah and Iranian fighters have otherwise been making gains in central Syria and around the capital Damascus.

Assad’s forces are reportedly now trying to retake those villages, predominantly populated by Alawites, an offshoot sect of Shiite Islam.

The mountainous region near the Mediterranean Sea is also home to villages populated by Sunni Muslims, who dominate the rebel ranks. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighter jets struck one Sunni village, Salma, late on Friday, and that at least half of the dead were fighters.

Most of Latakia province has been under tight government control and comparatively peaceful during the conflict, now in its third year. But earlier this week the Syrian rebels swept through a string of villages, sending civilians fleeing their homes. At least 60 civilians, mostly women and children, were killed in the rebel offensive, activists said. They say another 400 civilians, mostly Alawites, are missing and are presumed to be in rebel custody in the area.

Syrian’s conflict started on March 15, 2011 as a largely peaceful uprising against Assad’s authoritarian rule. It has taken on an increasingly sectarian tone in the last year. The UN says more than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict but according to the activists the number is much higher .

Photo: A man carries a child from the site of a missile strike in Raqqa, Syria, last Wednesday, August 7. Pic: Shaam News Network / AP

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