BEIRUT Syrian rebels captured four Alawite villages on the country's mountainous Mediterranean coast on Monday as they battled government troops in one of President Bashar Assad's strongholds for the second straight day, activists said.
Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, dominate Assad's regime. The capture of villages in their heartland in Latakia province is a symbolic blow to Assad, whose forces have otherwise been taking territory in recent weeks in central Syria.
Syria's conflict has taken on an increasingly sectarian tone in the last year, pitting predominantly Sunni Muslim rebels against the Alawite-dominated regime.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels captured the villages after attacking government outposts in the Jabal al-Akrad hills on Sunday. The group, which relies on reports from activists, said at least 32 government troops and militiamen and at least 19 rebels, including foreign fighters, died in Sunday's fighting.
Much of Latakia has been under the firm control of Assad's forces since the beginning of the conflict more than two years ago, but some areas including the Jabal al-Akrad are close to rebel-held areas and have seen fighting.
It was a rare success for the rebels on the battlefield in recent weeks. Assad's forces have been on the offensive since taking the central town of Qusair in June, and last week captured a key district in the central city of Homs, an opposition stronghold.
Syria main's opposition bloc hailed the rebel advance, and said that Assad's troops had used the villages to attack rebel-held civilian areas.
The Observatory's chief Rami Abdul-Rahman said civilians in the four villages fled. There were no immediate reports of civilian casualties in the fighting.
Meanwhile, at the site of one of the regime's victories in Homs, Syrian Defense Minister Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij toured the ravaged district of Khaldiyeh Monday, praising troops for what he told state TV was a "military miracle."
Standing in front of the historic Khalid bin al-Waleed mosque in Khaldiyeh, al-Freij vowed the army will "triumph against this universally-backed terrorism which is being exported to us."
More than 100,000 people have been killed since the conflict started in March 2011 as largely peaceful protests against Assad's rule. It turned into an armed uprising after opposition supporters took up arms to fight a brutal government crackdown on dissent.
The Assad government claims it is not facing a popular revolt, but a conspiracy by Gulf Arab states and the West seeking to destroy Syria by supplying Islamic extremists with weapons and funds.
Also Monday, Human Rights Watch said ballistic missiles fired by the Syrian army into populated areas have killed hundreds of civilians in recent months.
The U.S.-based group said it has investigated nine apparent missile attacks that killed at least 215 people, half of them children, between February and July. The most recent attack HRW investigated occurred in the northern province of Aleppo on July 26, killing at least 33 civilians including 17 children.
HRW activists visited the sites of seven of the nine attacks and found no apparent military targets nearby, the group said. Ole Solvang, a senior researcher with HRW, said it's impossible to distinguish between civilians and fighters when firing missiles with wide-ranging destructive effects into densely populated areas.
"Even if there are fighters in the area, you cannot accurately target them and the impact in some of these cases has been devastating to local civilians," Solvang said in a statement.
The HRW called on Assad to stop indiscriminate attacks.
Government officials could not immediately be reached for comment. The military has repeatedly denied it is targeting civilians during the 2-year conflict, saying its troops are fighting "terrorists" hiding in civilian areas.
In his latest appearance late Sunday Assad called on the Syrians to unite behind the army's efforts to "defend their homeland"
"There is no solution with terrorism but to strike with an iron fist," Assad was quoted as saying by state news agency SANA. "With this kind of battles that aim at the destruction of the cultural identity and the Syrian national fabric, we either win together as Syrians or lose together."
Assad spoke while taking part in an iftar, the meal that breaks the dawn-to-dusk fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.