A week-long government siege of a rebel-occupied Damascus suburb has killed at least 371 people, including 122 whose bodies were reportedly found in a mosque, anti-government activists said Sunday.
The violence with which the Syrian army stormed Darayya, southeast of the capital, underscores what appears to be fresh determination by the government of President Bashar Assad to reassert authority in suburbs that were seized by rebels last month in the wake of a July 18 bombing that killed four top Assad advisers.
It was impossible to know how many of the dead were combatants and how many were civilians. A list of the dead published on the website of the Darayya Local Coordinating Committee, an anti-Assad group, showed 40 female names, plus nine others whose gender could not be determined. Two were identified as girls. The rest appeared to be male, though the ages of most were not given.
Fighting in Darayya had been fierce for several days. The area had been controlled by a group known as the Sahaba Battalions, part of a larger federation of rebel groups known as Ansar al Islam. Government forces began shelling the town about two weeks ago, then intensified the assault last Monday as they prepared to push into the area. Residents of Darayya reported that electricity, phone and Internet service had been cut a week ago.
The violence escalated throughout the week, with video posted on the Facebook page of one of the rebel units showing gunmen in black track suits – whoever shot the video was careful not to show faces – firing automatic rifles at unseen targets. Rebel statements indicated that at least 100 people had died as shelling and battles with loyalist units escalated.
But the real carnage apparently came on Saturday, after the rebels reportedly abandoned their positions Friday night and withdrew from the town.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights, which documents civilian and rebel casualties, said 219 people were killed on Saturday, including 122 whose bodies were found in a mosque where, activists said, they had taken shelter.
“Snipers then stationed themselves on the rooftops overlooking main streets in the city and began to snipe anyone they see, indiscriminate be it children, elderly, or women,” read a report on one online activist bulletin board.
The government news agency, SANA, provided scant details of the fighting, saying on Sunday only that “The armed forces continued their work to clear the area of Darayya in Damascus countryside from terrorist groups, pursuing terrorists and raiding their hideouts”
The SANA account said “a large number of terrorists” had been killed and “large amounts of weapons” captured. It said the captured weapons included rocket-propelled grenade launchers and U.S-made sniper rifles. It gave no indication of government casualties; SANA stopped enumerating government deaths in June.
A more graphic account appeared on Al Dounia, a pro-government Syrian TV station. Opening with a grisly shot of a dead man sitting in the driver’s seat of a devastated van whose door was streaked with rivulets of blood, the report, narrated by a female reporter wearing a blue bullet proof vest, included a tour of the devastation, with army troops pointing out bodies in apartment hallways, along walkways and littering cemeteries. It appeared to have been closely scripted; one injured woman was interviewed as she lay atop what appeared to be a grave before Syrian army troops nudged the reporter and cameraman aside and carried the woman off.
The report showed little fighting and no dead government troops. Still, it was one of the frankest admissions yet by the government that a war is being fought in and around Damascus – though it did not acknowledge that the opposition force is largely Syrian, referring to the rebels instead as “mercenaries and terrorists.” The report included an army officer ticking off what he said were the nationalities of some of the dead, including Afghan and Pakistani.
In another unusual twist, opposition activists identified the leader of the Syrian army units in Darayya as Colonel Sulaiman Mohammed, from the Army’s Fourth Division, which is commanded by Maher Assad, the president’s younger brother.
The activists also said that much of the killing Saturday had been the work of a shadowy militia known as the shabiha, and identified them as coming from the nearby Mezzeh 86 neighborhood, a predominantly Alawite area, the same religious sect as the country’s ruling elite. The rebels are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims.
The allegation of shabiha responsibility for atrocities after Syrian military action fits a pattern that has surfaced elsewhere in Syria. In May and June, similar mass killings occurred in Houla, a largely rebel-held city about two hours north of Damascus, and in Qubeir, a small village near the central Syrian city of Hama.
The worst bloodshed in Darayya appeared to have taken place at the Abu Suleiman al Darani Mosque, where activists said they had documented 122 executions on Saturday. Video posted on YouTube showed a number of corpses inside the mosque, and activists said 19 women and three children were among those killed. Most of the people found dead in the mosque had fled there for safety, activists said.
.Activists said that besides the mosque, two other mass executions in other parts of the area had left at least 27 people dead.
The siege of Darayya in the south followed another government push north of the capital that saw army units seize control last week of the town of al Tal, where rebels had held sway since July and had long co-existed with government police even before the July 18 bombing that killed the minister of defense and others.
Fighting was also reported in Nahr Aisha, adjacent to Darayya. In past weeks, Nahr Aisha has been the scene of shelling and repeated clashes between rebels and the government’s forces, as well as executions of fighters or suspected fighters.
Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this report from Beirut.