Islamic State militants have attacked several government-held villages in central Syria in violence which left 52 people dead, including more than two dozen women and children - some of whom were beheaded.
The attack in the central Hama province targeted villages where most residents belong to the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam, raising fears the extremists might massacre them, as they have in other minority communities in Syria and Iraq.
The villages are located near the town of Salamiyeh and the highway that links the capital, Damascus, to the northern city of Aleppo, but state media said traffic was not affected.
State news agency SANA said militants were able to storm homes in the southern part of the Aqareb al-Safi village, adding that government forces had repelled them, pushing them back toward the desert.
The head of the National Hospital in Salamiyeh, Dr Noufal Safar, said the hospital received 52 bodies, including 11 women and 17 children. He said some of them had been beheaded, while others had their limbs removed.
Dr Safar said: "They were brought with all forms of deformations but most of them appear to have died as a result of gunfire."
He quoted some of the wounded people as saying the extremists began storming homes and beheading women inside.
Rami Razzouk, a coroner at the hospital who inspected the bodies, said the children brought in were mostly dismembered, while most of the men died from shelling or heavy machine gun fire.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said that 52 people were killed in the fighting, with the dead including 15 civilians, 27 Syrian soldiers and 10 unidentified people.
SANA said 40 people were wounded.
The attack on Aqareb al-Safi came as government forces are on the offensive against the extremists in other parts of Syria, mostly in the northern province of Aleppo and the central Homs region and to the east. US-backed and Kurdish-led forces are meanwhile marching toward the extremists' de-facto capital of Raqqa, in northern Syria.
The IS-linked Aamaq news agency said the group had captured Aqareb al-Safi and Mabouja. It identified residents as members of President Bashar Assad's Alawite sect, an off-shoot of Shia Islam. The Sunni extremists view Shias as apostates deserving of death.
IS has massacred thousands of Shias and other opponents in Syria and Iraq, often boasting about the killings and circulating photos and videos of them online.