BEIRUT -- Syrian government forces reached an agreement Saturday with local officials of a vulnerable Sunni village in a region dominated by President Bashar Assad's Alawite sect to end hours of deadly shelling in exchange for the surrender of dozens of opposition fighters, an activist group said.
The shelling of al-Mitras began at dawn, killing eight civilians while fierce fighting between rebels and government forces on the outskirts of the village left 20 soldiers dead or wounded, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The violence ended when local officials and dignitaries from the village persuaded dozens of defectors and rebels to surrender to authorities with the promise that they would be freed after repenting.
Such deals have been used in the past to end bouts of heavy fighting as the two sides find themselves stalemated. One ended days of heavy fighting in the central town of Talkalakh, near the border with Lebanon earlier this year.
Rights groups and activists had expressed concern that al-Mitras would suffer the same fate as the nearby Sunni towns of Bayda and Banias, where activists allege government troops killed 248 people after days of shelling.
The Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition group, expressed fears that "Assad's forces might commit a massacre in the village," which it said has a population of 8,000 and is surrounded by villages that are loyal to the government.
The rebels are outgunned by regime forces, which have gained momentum since President Bashar Assad agreed to relinquish his chemical weapons stocks, averting the threat of imminent U.S. military action. But they often are able to engage in deadly battles.
Syria's civil war has cleaved along the country's sectarian patchwork. Majority Sunni Muslims dominate the revolt, which began in March 2011, while Christians and other Muslim sects have mostly stood behind the regime.
But the opposition itself faces growing divisions and internal fighting as the Western-backed rebels blame al-Qaida linked extremists for tarnishing their image and preventing the U.S. and its allies from providing crucial support.
On Saturday, al-Qaida fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and Jabhat al-Nusra clashed with Kurdish gunmen in the northeastern province of Hassakeh, the Observatory said.