DAMASCUS, Syria — Al-Qaida fighters and other ultraconservative Sunni insurgents seized a predominantly Alawite village in central Syria on Thursday, sparking fears of sectarian violence as families from the village were reported missing by activists.
Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi said "terrorists" were killing townspeople, while Syrian state media said militants had looted and destroyed homes in the village of Zaara, which was previously controlled by the government.
Clashes between insurgents and pro-government forces continued into the afternoon as government or allied Russian aircraft pounded rebel positions, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding that seven militants were killed. The Local Coordination Committees, an activist-run network, said the insurgents killed over 30 pro-government fighters in the clashes.
Ahrar al-Sham, an ultraconservative Sunni Islamic militant group, led the assault on Zaara, along with the Nusra Front, al-Qaida's Syrian franchise, which often fights alongside opposition factions. The Observatory, which covers both sides of the conflict through a network of local activists, said families disappeared from Zaara after the militants took over.
Syria's conflict began with peaceful protests against President Bashar Assad but escalated into a civil war after a brutal government crackdown and the rise of an armed insurgency. It became increasingly sectarian with the rise of Sunni insurgent groups and the arrival of Shiite militants from across the region to fight alongside Assad's government. Assad and his family are Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while the majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims.
Both the government and the opposition claim to represent the entire country with its various religious minorities, but armed groups on both sides have carried out sectarian attacks.
The International Committee for the Red Cross had to cancel an aid convoy to the nearby town of al-Houla, citing security concerns. The ICRC did not say whether it was related to the clashes in Zaara.
The 24-truck convoy with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent was to make the first aid delivery to the town since March, when aid reached 70,000 residents in the area for the first time since May 2015.
Syrian government forces have restricted access to the area since May 2012, according to the monitoring group Siege Watch. The Observatory says the siege intensified into a near-total blockade last year.
The ICRC, in conjunction with the United Nations and the SARC, had also planned to dispatch an aid convoy to Daraya, a suburb of Damascus besieged by pro-government forces. But the ICRC said the convoy was refused entry "despite being given prior clearance from all sides." It called on "responsible authorities" to grant access, without specifying who had caused the delay.
It would have been the first aid delivery to the area since November 2012. The U.N. estimates the suburb's current population is between 4,000 and 8,000 people, down from over 70,000 before the war.
"People in Daraya are in need of everything. It is tragic that even the basics we were bringing today are being delayed unnecessarily," the ICRC said.
In Geneva, the U.N. humanitarian aid coordinator for Syria expressed dismay about "disappointing" levels of access to besieged and hard-to-reach areas so far this month. Jan Egeland said his office hopes to get aid to about 905,000 people this month.
"We have a convoy fully loaded, standing for days, as it did last week, with supplies we know that there is a desperate need for, and then you are in the end told, 'No, you have to unload,'" he said, referring to a convoy that was supposed to travel to the rebel-held al-Waer neighborhood in Homs last week.
In the country's north, rebels fought back a government offensive to take the Palestinian Handarat refugee camp north of Aleppo. A government advance there would threaten the only supply route to the rebel-held portion of Aleppo, Syria's largest city and former commercial capital.
An interim cease-fire over the divided city, which brought a few days of peace after two weeks of shelling and bombardment, expired Wednesday night.
World powers plan to meet on Syria next week in Vienna, with another round of U.N.-led, indirect peace negotiations between Syria's government and the opposition expected to follow some days later.
The Vienna talks aim to build on a U.S.-Russia agreement announced this week to try to restore a nationwide cease-fire.
Issa reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten contributed from Geneva.