AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian opposition activists accused President Bashar al-Assad’s army on Sunday of massacring scores of people in a town close to the capital that it recently recaptured from rebels.
More than 200 bodies, some of them women and children, were found in houses and basements around Daraya, according to activists who said most had been killed “execution-style” by troops during house-to-house raids.
Due to restrictions on non-state media in Syria, it was impossible to independently verify the accounts.
“Assad’s army has committed a massacre in Daraya,” said Abu Kinan, an activist in the town, using an alias to protect himself from reprisals.
The killings in Daraya, a working class Sunni Muslim town that sustained three days of heavy bombardment before being overrun by the army on Friday, raised the daily death toll to 440 people on Saturday, one of the highest since the uprising started in March last year, the Local Coordination Committees, an activist network, said.
Video footage from activists showed numerous bodies of young men side-by-side at the Abu Suleiman al-Darani mosque in Daraya, many with what looked like gunshot wounds to the head and chest.
“A massacre,” said the voice of the man who appeared to be taking the footage. “You are seeing the revenge of Assad’s forces … more than 150 bodies on the floor of this mosque.”
The official state news agency said: “Our heroic armed forces cleansed Daraya from remnants of armed terrorist groups who committed crimes against the sons of the town and scared them and sabotaged and destroyed public and private property.”
U.N. investigators said in a report this month that both sides in the conflict had performed summary executions – a war crime – but that Assad’s troops and militia loyal to the president had committed many more offences than the rebels.
The report said forces loyal to Assad committed a massacre of more than 100 civilians in the town of Houla in May that the government blamed on Islamist “terrorists”.
The United Nations estimates that more than 18,000 people have been killed in the conflict that pits a mainly Sunni opposition against a ruling system dominated by the Assad family – members of the Alawite faith, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam – for the last four decades.
VICE-PRESIDENT NOT DEFECTED
As well as the bloodshed in Damascus and surrounding cities, many were killed in Syria’s biggest city Aleppo where rebel-held areas came under heavy bombardment.
State television reported clashes between the army and “terrorists” in a central neighbourhood of Aleppo next to the historic Old City and less than 1 km (1,000 yards) away from its ancient citadel.
The Free Hauran Assembly activists’ group said a brigadier named Mohammad Hassan al-Haj had defected to Jordan, the latest Sunni officer to desert.
But earlier reports that Vice-President Farouq al-Sharaa had defected were shown to be wrong when he appeared in public for the first time in weeks, meeting Iranian officials, state news agency SANA reported.
Iran, the Middle East’s main Shi’ite power which is a close ally of Assad, accuses its adversaries in the West and the Arab world of fuelling the conflict by backing the opposition.
“Fortunately today important countries such as Russia, China and the Islamic Republic of Iran … are completely opposed to imposed policies on Syria and foreign interference,” said Alaeddin Boroujerdi, a senior member of Iran’s parliament visiting Damascus, Fars news agency reported.
Tehran, defying efforts by the West to isolate it over its nuclear activities opened a summit of developing nations on Sunday where Syria may prove a divisive topic.
The head of the Arab League said both sides of the conflict should stop fighting and start talking.
“Those who wait to achieve a victory in the ongoing conflict in Syria are putting Syria in a big war,” Nabil Elaraby told a news conference in Cairo.
“We hope that the sound of reason prevails and that both sides accept mediation efforts.”
With Russia leading resistance to Western and Arab pressure for action against Assad, the United Nations Security Council remains deadlocked.
A new U.N. envoy, Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, has said he is “humbled and scared” at the task of seeking a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis.
(Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes in Aleppo, Marwan Makdesi in Damascus, Yeganeh Torbati in Dubai and Tamim Elyan in Cairo; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)