Syria accused of 'massacre' as hundreds of bodies found
DAMASCUS - Agence France-Presse
A handout picture released by Syrian Arab news agency (SANA) shows Syrian army soldiers patrol and sweep the street in the Seif El Dawlah area and its environs in the province of Aleppo, Syria, 25 August 2012. EPA PhotoSeveral hundred bodies have been found in a town near Damascus after a ferocious assault by the Syrian army, a watchdog said today, as activists accused government forces of another gruesome "massacre." Grisly videos issued by opposition militants showed dozens of charred and bloodied bodies lined up in broad daylight in a graveyard, and others lying wall-to-wall in rooms in a mosque in the town of Daraya.
At least 320 people were killed in a five-day onslaught on Daraya by troops battling to crush insurgents who have regrouped in the outskirts of the capital, according to a toll from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists on the ground, described it as a "massacre" by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and said many victims had been summarily executed and their bodies burnt.
"The shabiha (pro-regime) militias... have been transformed into a killing machines that threatens the Syrian people and our future," it said.
Human rights groups have accused the regime of committing many atrocities since the uprising against Assad's government erupted in March last year, and a UN panel said earlier this month it was guilty of crimes against humanity.
"An odious massacre committed by the gangs of the Assad regime in the Abu Sleiman Addarani Mosque," said a commentary with a video posted by opposition militants on YouTube that showed dozens of bodies lined up in dimly lit rooms.
In another LCC video, Daraya's dead, among them at least two children, were shown being prepared for burial in mass graves. Palm leaves were strewn on the bodies that were covered in blankets and laid in a hastily dug trench.
State media said Daraya, a mainly Sunni Muslim town of some 200,000 people, was being "purified of terrorist remnants." "Our valiant armed forces cleared Daraya of the remnants of armed terrorist groups which committed crimes that traumatised the citizens of the town and destroyed public and private property," the government newspaper Ath-Thawra said.
At least 183 people were killed nationwide on Saturday, the Observatory said, as the brutal conflict that has convulsed Syria for 17 months showed no signs of abating.
Activists described the Daraya offensive as a bid to crush "once and for all" the insurgency in Damascus after rebel Free Syrian Army fighters regrouped to the southern outskirts following an army offensive in the heart of the city last month.
The LCC accused the regime of blockading Daraya to choke off supplies and then indiscriminately shelling the town with heavy weapons and warplanes.
"Afterwards the gangs of killers entered the town and carried out summary executions, before dismembering and setting fire to the bodies." Reports by activists cannot be independently confirmed because of severe restrictions on media operating in Syria.
Assad's Alawite-led regime insists it is fighting foreign "terrorists" aided by regional Sunni Muslim rivals and the West, but has been hit by a wave of defections, including several high-ranking officials, as the violence escalates.
Vice President Shara seen in public
On Sunday, Vice President Faruq al-Shara made his first public appearance in over a month, following rumours that he had tried to defect and that he was being held under house arrest.
Shara -- the regime's highest-ranking Sunni Muslim official -- and Assad both held talks with the visiting head of the Iranian parliament's foreign policy committee, Aladin Borujerdi.
"We see Syria's security as our security. On this basis, we will stick by our Syrian brothers," Borujerdi said, according to Iran's state news agency IRNA.
Tehran -- the regime's staunchest ally -- has said it will submit a plan for ending the conflict to a Non-Aligned Movement summit it is hosting on Thursday and Friday.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem also said that any negotiations between the government and the opposition would only begin "after purging Syria of armed groups," IRNA reported.
Tehran's initiative comes as its foes in the West seek to ramp up the pressure on Damascus, with Washington and London threatening action if it uses its chemical weapons and Paris voicing support for a partial no-fly zone.
The Observatory also reported shelling or air strikes in other parts of the country on Sunday including the battered northern city of Aleppo and Daraa in the far south, the cradle of the uprising.
A report by UN investigators this month said government forces and their militia allies had committed crimes against humanity and that rebels had also carried out war crimes, although on a lesser scale.
In particular, it held government forces responsible for a massacre in the central town of Houla in May when 108 civilians, including 49 children, were killed in an atrocity that shocked the world.
August is already the deadliest single month of the conflict with at least 4,000 people killed, according to the Observatory, while around 25,000 have died since March 2011.
The United Nations puts the death toll at more than 17,000 and has warned of a major humanitarian crisis with more than 200,000 refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries and 2.5 million in need inside Syria.
New international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who takes over from Kofi Annan next month, said on Friday he was "scared" of the enormity of the task he faces to try to end the increasingly ferocious conflict.
Syria warned Brahimi on Sunday not to follow the same path as Annan, with Ath-Thawra accusing the former UN chief who quit this month after the failure of his peace plan of "bowing to US and Western pressure." Damascus said last week it would cooperate with Brahimi to try to pave the way for "national dialogue," while also suggesting it was ready to discuss Assad's exit as part of any negotiated solution.