04/05/2013 13:33 BST | Updated 04/05/2013 18:00 BST

Syrians Flee Sunni 'Sectarian Cleansing' By Assad Forces In Coastal Towns Banias And Al-Bayda

Thousands of Syrians have fled coastal towns, amid reports that roving pro-government gunmen were targeting people in the area, killing men, women and children.

Gruesome images of burnt bodies, dead or dying children and mutilated corpses, purportedly from the towns, were widely shown on TV stations and posted on YouTube. Experts at AP said they appeared genuine.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in the UK, said 62 people, including 14 children, had died and around 4,000 people had fled the southern parts of the town of Banias on the Mediterranean, a predominently Sunni Muslim area.

Syrian anti-government protesters take part in a demonstration in the northern Syrian port of Banias (file photo)

Earlier this week, 72 were killed at the nearby village of al-Bayda.

The SOHR also said officials had attempted to prevent people from leaving the area, demanding to see identity cards.

Rebel groups have accused government forces of carrying out sectarian cleansing, the BBC reported. Sunnis make up the bulk of the resistance forces in Syria.

In a statement, the US state department said it was "appalled" by the latest reported incidents.

"We strongly condemn atrocities against the civilian population and reinforce our solidarity with the Syrian people," it added.

"As the Assad regime's violence against innocent civilians escalates, we will not lose sight of the men, women, and children whose lives are being so brutally cut short.

"Those responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law and serious violations and abuses of human rights law must be held accountable."

Syria's president Bashar al-Assad made a rare public appearance on Saturday at Damascus University, to unveil a new statue, a tribute to those who have died in the country's civil war, which has been ongoing since 2011.

Earlier on Saturday, Israeli officials confirmed that its air force carried out an airstrike in Syria, targeted a shipment of advanced missiles headed for Lebanese group Hezbollah.