An ISIS "massacre" and possible kidnapping in the eastern Syrian city of Deir al-Zor may have left hundreds of civilians and fighters dead, according to monitoring groups and Syrian state media.
Up to 400 civilians were kidnapped in an Islamic State attack on government-held neighborhoods in the city and taken to the countryside, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a United Kingdom-based monitoring group.
"There is genuine fear for their lives, there is a fear that the group might execute them as it has done before in other areas," group founder Rami Abdul Rahman told Reuters. SOHR sources reported that victims of the kidnapping, an event that could not be independently verified, included families of pro-government forces.
On Saturday, SOHR reported that 135 had been killed in the attacks on Deir al-Zor, including 85 civilians as well as pro-government and rebel forces. SANA, the Syrian state news agency, reported a "horrific massacre" of 300 civilians, but did not report a kidnapping. Both government and independent sources reported execution-style killings.
If confirmed, the deaths would be one of IS's largest mass killings in Syria, though not the largest. In June 2014, the group captured and massacred more than 1,500 Shiite fighters and, less than two months later, killed 900 members of the Sunni Shaitat tribe after they stage a failed uprising against the Islamic State.
ISIS has sought control of Deir al-Zor as a link between its so-called caliphate's capital in Raqqa, Syria, and territory in Iraq. The Islamist militant group said it had used suicide bombs to attack government forces in Al-Baghaliyeh, a northern suburb, although local sources later said the attack had been repelled, according to Agence France-Presse.
Civilians in government-held areas of the city, many of whom have been displaced from their homes, have been under siege by ISIS since last March, highlighting the threat that forces on both sides of the Syrian conflict are using hunger as a weapon of war.
Reports of starvation and widespread malnutrition in rebel-held Madaya "represent the tip of an iceberg," Amnesty International Director for the Middle East and Africa Philip Luther told CNN.
Graphic images of hunger in the southwestern town of 40,000 prompted an urgent United Nations deal to allow Red Cross convoys to deliver food and aid last week. Activists have reported that more than 40 people have died during a half-year siege by government forces and allied militias to retake Madaya, which is less than an hour from Damascus, Syria's capital.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has called the starvation a "war crime," told reporters that "U.N. teams have witnessed scenes that haunt the soul" after entering Madaya.
As part of the UN-brokered deal to allow aid, food deliveries were made simultaneously to in al-Fouaa and Kefraya, which have been under a rebel blockade.
New peace negotiations are set to begin on January 25 in Geneva, Switzerland, and January 20 meetings between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will include discussions to allow humanitarian aid to reach "beseiged and hard-to-reach places," according to a State department spokesperson.
"We do not want to see [food delivery] as a one-off," Yacoub El Hillo, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Syria, told reporters after aid reached Madaya, al-Fouaa, and Ketraya. "Ultimately the real solution to this predicament, to the plight of the people besieged in these towns, is for the siege to be lifted."