Syrian rebels battled government troops in the coastal province of Latakia for the second straight day Monday, making advances in one of President Bashar Assad’s strongholds, activists said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels took control of four villages in mountainous terrain near the Mediterranean sea. Like much of Latakia province, they were populated by Alawites, members of the Shia offshoot sect to which Mr Assad’s family belongs.

Syria’s conflict has taken on an increasingly sectarian tone in the last year, pitting predominantly Sunni Muslim rebels against the Alawite-dominated regime.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels attacked government outposts in the Jabal al-Akrad hills on Sunday. The group, which relies on reports from activists, said at least 32 government troops and militiamen and at least 19 rebels, including foreign fighters, died in Sunday’s fighting.

Much of Latakia has been under the firm control of Mr Assad’s forces since the beginning of the conflict more than two years ago, but some areas including the Jabal al-Akrad are close to rebel-held areas and have seen fighting.

It was a rare success for the rebels on the battlefield in recent weeks. Mr Assad’s forces have been on the offensive since taking the central town of Qusair in June.

Syria main’s opposition bloc hailed the rebel advance, and said the Syrian military had used the captured territory to attack rebel-held civilian areas.

The Observatory’s chief Rami Abdul-Rahman said civilians in the four villages fled. There were no immediate reports of civilian casualties in the fighting.

Also Monday, Human Rights Watch said ballistic missiles fired by the Syrian army into populated areas have killed hundreds of civilians in recent months.

The U.S.-based group said it has investigated nine apparent missile attacks that killed at least 215 people, half of them children, between February and July. The most recent attack HRW investigated occurred in the northern province of Aleppo on July 26, killing at least 33 civilians including 17 children.

“Even if there are fighters in the area, you cannot accurately target them and the impact in some of these cases has been devastating to local civilians,” Solvang said in a statement.

The HRW called on Mr Assad to stop indiscriminate attacks.

Government officials could not immediately be reached for comment. The military has repeatedly denied it is targeting civilians during the 2-year conflict, saying its troops are fighting “terrorists” hiding in civilian areas.

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