Beirut: Extremist Islamic rebels who overran a village in central Syria populated by the Alawite minority have killed at least 40 people, activists said on Monday.

Half of the victims in Sunday’s attack were civilians, including women, while the other half were village fighters defending their homes in Maan in the province of Hama, said the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Syrian state media described the attack as a “massacre” perpetrated by terrorists, a term the government uses to describe rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Al Assad. Extremist Sunni fighters have come to dominate the armed uprising against Al Assad, who is a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite sect.

The raid on Maan is likely to bolster efforts by the government delegation to convey their narrative at the Geneva peace talks that the three-year uprising to overthrow Al Assad is dominated by Al Qaida extremists. The extremists see Alawites as apostates who should be killed.

The reports of the Maan attack came as Syrian government and opposition delegates started a fresh round of UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva. The first face-to-face meetings adjourned 10 days ago having achieved little beyond getting the warring sides into the same room.

Prospects for common ground appear unlikely as the two sides continue to disagree on the core issue of Al Assad’s future. Fighting has escalated since the first round, with violence disrupting food distribution meant to ease the plight of civilians in the central city of Homs and near Damascus.

In the Maan attack, those slain included 11 men and women from one extended family, said Rami Abdul Rahman of the Observatory.

Abdul Rahman said the Islamic fighters overran Maan after Alawite villagers lobbed mortar shells on the rebels using the nearby roads. There have been heavy clashes for weeks between hardline rebels and Al Assad loyalists in the nearby community of Morek, he added.

Most of the Maan women and children were evacuated before the rebels stormed in but one family stayed put, said Abdul Rahman.

A man, his brother, his wife, their four daughters, three sons and son-in-law were all killed, he said.

A video uploaded by the rebels of the Jund Al Aqsa Brigade showed them waving an Al Qaida flag over the village rooftops as bearded, grinning men looted homes. The video corresponded with The Associated Press’ reporting of the event.