A powerful car bomb exploded near a school in a central province Thursday, killing at least 16 people and causing massive damage to a residential area, Syrian state media and an opposition watchdog said.
The explosion targeted the al-Kaffat village in Hama province, an area populated mostly by members of the country's minority Ismaili sect, a branch of Shiite Islam. There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but radical Sunni extremists among the rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad's government frequently have targeted the country's religious minorities in the course of the civil war, now in its third year.
The conflict largely pits the mostly Sunni opposition against Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Syrian state television said Thursday's car bomb explosion in al-Kaffat village killed 16 people and caused extensive damage to cars and residences in the area. The Hama police command said there were women and children among the victims.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which keeps track of the fighting in Syria through a network of activists on the ground, said 18 people were killed, most of them civilians. Such discrepancies are common in the chaos immediately after an attack.
The explosion occurred amid continuing infighting in northern Syria between rebel factions and an al-Qaida-linked group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The Iraqi-based group has alienated other factions by using brutal tactics to implement its strict interpretation of Islamic law including the kidnapping and killing of opponents.
A consortium of rebel groups began attacking the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on Friday, and weeklong clashes have killed hundreds of people in what has become a war within the war in Syria.
On Wednesday, rebels successfully ousted the group from its local headquarters and bases in the key northern city of Aleppo. But activists said its fighters were regrouping and launching attacks from towns and villages around Aleppo.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and another al-Qaida linked group known as Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front, initially joined forces with moderate rebels fighting to oust Assad in a conflict that began in March 2011 as a popular uprising but morphed into a civil war.
The extremists proved well-organized and efficient fighters, giving the ragtag rebels a boost. But the network's brutality has turned other factions against it, leading to some of the worst infighting of the conflict.
The fighting has spread from Aleppo to nearby Idlib and Raqqa, a bastion of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.