By David Enders, McClatchy Newspapers –
ANTAKYA, Turkey — A weeklong 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, shows what appears to be renewed determination by the government of President Bashar Assad to reassert authority in suburbs that were seized by rebels last month after 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 sex 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” “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 bulletproof 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.
Opposition activists identified the leader of the Syrian army units in Darayya as Col. Sulaiman Mohammed, from the Army’s Fourth Division, which is commanded by Maher Assad, the president’s younger brother.