Bashar al-Assad’s militias are “cleansing” towns and villages of their Sunni Muslim inhabitants across the Syrian province of Homs.
The “Shabiha”, a loyalist militia drawn largely from the Syrian president’s Alawite sect, is systematically looting and then destroying the homes of any Sunnis who have fled the province, a key battleground in the country’s civil war.
"They pushed out the rebel fighters and now they are trying to push out all the Sunnis," said Bilal, a 23-year-old from the Sunni village of Talkalakh in Homs province. "They took our houses, threatened us, destroyed our villages."
Assad’s regime has trained its military might on rebel strongholds in Homs province, winning back the border towns of Qusayr and Talkalakh, and shelling areas of the provincial capital.
The offensive is so intense that rebels admit they cannot hold out for much longer. It has also taken on a sectarian character, with the army on Monday bombarding the Sunni mausoleum of Khaled bin Walid, a companion of Prophet Mohammed. Whether this was intentional or a mistake is unclear.
After each campaign, however, Alawite civilians and loyalist paramilitaries from the National Defence Force have stormed the newly recaptured towns and villages, looting Sunni homes and often setting them on fire, with the apparent aim of ensuring that the owners have nothing left to return to.
"They even took the sinks of the bathrooms. The things they couldn’t carry, they burnt," said Zacharia, a 23-year-old rebel fighter who escaped Talkalakh one week ago, after government troops stormed the town.
"After the army were finished, the Shabiha came: they divided the houses up between them, and started taking away the spoils."
Local people believe the regime is trying to cleanse the area of its Sunni residents with the aim of creating a rump state for the minority Alawites. This would run from the capital, Damascus, to the Alawite coastal heartland of Latakia. Homs is the vital link connecting the two regions.
Some experts are sceptical, believing that the regime, buoyed by its recent military victories, is focused simply on crushing the insurgency across the country.
But expelling Sunnis, who have tended to back the rebels, would be a way for Mr Assad’s forces to consolidate their control over hard-won terrain: “The regime hasn’t been in a position to allow people back into the areas they have taken,” said Peter Harling from the International Crisis Group. “Wherever people come back, the problems come back with them.”
The civil war has exposed the country’s sectarian fault lines, igniting hatred between communities who previously co-existed. Talkalakh is surrounded by 52 largely Alawite villages, where people are now leading the campaign against their Sunni neighbours, according to refugees.
"This is not just about criminals wanting to make money. They want to kill all the Sunnis," said Fayez, a resident of Talkalakh who fled with his family to neighbouring Lebanon. "We used to hear them at night. They used to scream down from their villages ‘we are coming for you. We don’t want Sunni’s on our land’."
Other residents told the Telegraph that Alawite neighbours are now storing the stolen goods on their farms.
Most of the Sunnis of Talkalakh have now fled, but those who have stayed are being given incentives to leave. Alawite businessmen from neighbourhing villages are offering to buy the homes of Sunnis, on the condition that they leave: “They come up to people and say ‘we can buy your house. You need the money and why do you want to stay in this village? It’s better to get out’,” said one man speaking by phone from Talkalakh.
The attacks have not been discouraged by the government. Residents say the Syrian army has watched the looters from the sidelines, and in some cases helped them.
In Homs, stolen goods are taken to a loyalist Alawite district and sold at what has become known as “the Sunni Market”. A female activist, calling herself Yam al-Homsi, secretly filmed the market: “I pretended I wanted to buy a cheap laptop. The market has everything you can imagine; from Adidas trainers to furniture,” she said.
"They even took the doors, tiles and electric cables from the homes. The Shabiha are organised: some loot the houses, whilst others sell the goods. They are not ashamed. One man told me it was a ‘gift from the war’."
Over 500,000 refugees, most of them Sunni, have now fled into neighbouring Lebanon. Some have little hope of returning to thier homes. “Maybe in the future if Syria is free, I hope the relationship can be good again between Sunni and Alawites ,” said Bilal, speaking from the empty building on the Lebanon-Syria border that is now his home. “But I don’t think it can happen”.