Syrian regime accused of killing hundreds in Daraya massacre
At least 200 dead in poor Sunni community on outskirts of capital city targeted by President Bashar al-Assad’s troops.
Julian Borger, diplomatic editor
- The Guardian, Monday 27 August 2012
- The Syrian civil war reached new heights of brutality on Sunday with government troops accused of massacring civilians a few miles from Damascus on a weekend which saw one of the worst reported death tolls in 17 months of conflict.
Opposition groups claimed more than 200 bodies had been found in Daraya, a poor Sunni community on the south-west outskirts of the capital, after Syrian troops had stormed the town on Saturday, going door to door in what President Bashar al-Assad’s regime described as a counter-terrorism operation. Opposition and human rights activists claimed many of the dead were civilians.
A New York Times employee in Daraya reported seeing “scores of bodies lined up on top of each other in long thin graves moist with mud”.
The paper quoted a 40-year-old resident, Abu Ahmad, as saying: “The Assad forces killed them in cold blood … I saw dozens of dead people, killed by the knives at the end of Kalashnikovs, or by gunfire. The regime finished off whole families, a father, mother and their children. They just killed them without any pretext.”
The claimed death toll could not be independently verified, but if confirmed, it would be the worst single massacre of the civil war.
With the world’s major powers still divided on how to respond to the bloodletting, Syria’s neighbours took urgent steps to try to stop the violence spreading on to their territory. Turkey temporarily closed its borders to refugees, trapping 2,000 people trying to flee the conflict on the Syrian side of the frontier, until shelters could be built to accommodate them. Jordan appealed for more international aid for looking after more than 160,000 Syrian refugees, who it said were arriving at the rate of 2,000 a day.
The spillover into Lebanon was being held back by a fragile ceasefire in the port city of Tripoli, where Sunni-Shia clashes broke out as a result of the abduction of Lebanese pilgrims by an anti-government militia in Syria, evoking uneasy memories of Lebanon’s own long civil war.
Egypt called for a regional peace conference, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, both supporters of the Syrian rebels, as well as Assad’s main ally in the Middle East, Iran.
Anxiety over the risks of a regional conflagration deepened further as it became clear that the violence in Syria was intensifying, with more civilians killed. The Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), an opposition network, claimed that more than 200 bodies had been found in Daraya, and activists circulated a video appearing to show dozens of bodies lined up in dimly lit rooms, described in the commentary as being in the town’s Abu Suleiman al-Durani mosque.
The government, which has rejected previous allegations of atrocities, portrayed the attack as a counter-terrorism operation. “Our heroic armed forces cleansed Daraya from remnants of armed terrorist groups,” the state news agency said.
The junior foreign minister responsible for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, said that if the reports were verified “it would be an atrocity on a new scale, requiring unequivocal condemnation from the entire international community”.
The storming of Daraya followed three days of heavy bombardment by government tanks and artillery, which the opposition said killed another 70 people. The offensive appeared to be part of a larger struggle for control of the southern fringe of the capital. Residents said that government tanks on the Damascus ring-road shelled the neighbourhoods of al-Lawwan and Nahr Aisheh late into Saturday night and that there was also heavy fighting in the Ghouta suburbs to the east of the city.
The LCC said forces loyal to Assad had killed 440 people across Syria on Saturday. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based activist group drawing information from a network of monitors across Syria, put the nationwide death toll for the day at 370, including 174 civilians. If confirmed, it would be one of the bloodiest days the country has suffered since the anti-Assad revolt broke out in March 2011.
It was impossible to verify such claims because of severe Syrian government restrictions on independent or foreign media coverage.
A United Nations report this month into an earlier massacre at Houlafound that the indiscriminate attacks against civilian populations and other atrocities were “state policy” and claimed Assad’s forces and allied Shabiha militia were involved at the highest levels in “gross violation of international human rights”.
The UN inquiry found that anti-Assad forces had also committed war crimes including “murder, extrajudicial execution and torture” but that these abuses “did not reach the gravity, frequency and scale of those committed by government forces and the Shabiha”.
A new Amnesty International report on the fighting in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, also found that “the overwhelming majority of victims were killed in air strikes and artillery attacks by government forces”, but it criticised rebels for using imprecise or indiscriminate weapons like mortars and home-made rockets.
Activists in Daraya alleged that most of the victims had been summarily executed by government troops moving from house to house. “Assad’s army has committed a massacre in Daraya,” Abu Kinan, an activist in the town, told Reuters news agency by telephone, using an alias to protect himself from reprisals. “In the last hour, 122 bodies were discovered and it appears that two dozen died from sniper fire and the rest were summarily executed by gunshots from close range,” he said.
The activist said he witnessed the death of an eight-year-old girl, Asma Abu al-Laban, shot by army snipers while she was in a car with her parents. “They were trying to flee the army raids. Three bullets hit her in the back and her parents brought her to a makeshift hospital. Nothing could be done for her,” he said.
A thorough investigation of atrocity claims can only be carried out by the international criminal court in the The Hague if it is given a mandate by the UN security council, but that has been blocked by Russia, the Assad regime’s principal backer and arms supplier, together with China. Moscow and Beijing have also vetoed resolutions threatening Assad with sanctions for non-compliance with a peace plan backed by the UN and the Arab League. The last UN monitors in Damascus left earlier this month when the security council failed to agree on a new mandate for them.
Western officials say they have largely given up on security council diplomacy and are stepping up their assistance to the fragmented opposition, though they say that assistance stops short of weapons. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are reported to be shipping arms to rebel groups, however, as the conflict continues to escalate.
Egypt became the latest country to offer its services as a peace broker, calling for a regional conference on the crisis, aimed at bridging the Sunni-Shia divide. The new Egyptian president, Mohammad Mursi, is due in Tehran for a meeting of more than 120 countries in the Non-Aligned Movement this week. He will be the first Egyptian leader to visit Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
While Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have all backed the mainly Sunni Free Syria Army rebels, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard forces have fought alongside Assad’s forces. Syria’s vice president Farouq al-Sharaa met an Iranian delegation on Sunday, according to Syria’s state news agency, marking his first appearance in several weeks. It put an end to opposition rumours that he had defected.
In the increasingly daunting search for a diplomatic solution, the UN and Arab League have appointed a new special envoy, a veteran Algerian diplomat, Lakhdar Brahimi, after the resignation of the former UN secretary general Kofi Annan. On Friday, Brahimi declared himself “honoured, flattered, humbled and scared” to be given the job.
February 1-8 More than 100 killed in shelling of Homs
March 17 Bombs in Damascus kill more than 30
April 25 Dozens killed in rocket strike on the city of Hama, central Syria
May 10 At least 50 die in bomb attacks at intelligence building in Damascus
May 25 More than 100 people, including children, killed in Houla, western Syria
June 6 Around 80 people killed at Qubair, near Houla
July 13 Dozens of people killed in the village of Tremseh
July 18 Suicide bomber kills senior defence and security officials in Damascus
August 25 Regime accused of killing 200 at Daraya in suburban Damascus