'Atrocity on a new scale'? Syrians piece together story of Daraya massacre

The Syrian opposition is disseminating video footage from the town of Daraya this weekend that tells of a government massacre that may have left more than 600  people dead. 

Shaam News Network/AP
This citizen journalism image provided by Shaam News Network, taken on Sunday, Aug. 26, purports to show people killed by shabiha, pro-government militiamen, being buried in a mass grave in Daraya, Syria. According to activists' accounts, government forces retook the Damascus suburb of Daraya from rebel control three days ago and have since gone on a killing spree.

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New video footage has provided graphic evidence of a massacre reportedly committed by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Damascus suburb of Daraya.  If reports from the London-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights of more than 300 dead are confirmed, "it would be an atrocity of a new scale" in the Syrian conflict, a British diplomat warned.

Over the weekend, activists posted multiple bloody videos of the victims of what they say was a coordinated massacre of citizens of Daraya – mostly young men of fighting age, although women and children were killed as well – that began on Friday. 

“The Assad forces killed them in cold blood,” Abu Ahmad, a resident of Daraya, told The New York Times.  “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 Local Coordination Committees activist group said that some 150 bodies were found Saturday night in the basement of a mosque in what seems to be the largest single killing site, though additional sites continue to be found – another 15 bodies were found in the basement of a home on Sunday.  The LCC puts the death toll for the week in Daraya at more than 630.

“Daraya, a city of dignity, has paid a heavy price for demanding freedom,” the group said in a statement, adding: “The death toll has doubled in the past few days due to field executions and revenge killings.”

Foreign journalists remain largely unable to confirm reports on the ground in Syria, due to violence and government restrictions.  But British Foreign Office Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt said that “If confirmed, it would be an atrocity of a new scale, requiring unequivocal condemnation from the entire international community,” reports the Telegraph. 

“It is clear that was collective punishment,” Khaled Al-Shami, an activist from Damascus, told the Associated Press. “I am certain that the coming days will reveal more massacres, but by then others will have taken place and people will forget about Daraya.”  Mr. Shami also said that Daraya was under a de facto curfew Sunday, as Syrian government forces carried out house-to-house searches.

The AP adds that the regime's campaign in Dayara is being carried out by an elite division of the military led by President Assad's brother, Maher.  Although it is unclear what prompted the campaign, the AP notes that Daraya abuts the capital's military airport, which activists say Assad intends to use as a gateway out of Damascus should the situation turn fully against the regime.

The Independent of London writes that the attack on Daraya began last week with five days of bombardment by tanks and helicopters. Late Friday, regime troops began systematically moving through the suburb, advancing 200 yards at a time.  "They would then shell the streets in front of them and raid the area," activists told The Independent.

Syrian state media blamed rebels for the violence, reports Agence France-Presse, and claimed that regime forces had "purified [Daraya] of terrorist remnants."

Pro-government television Al-Dunia said "terrorists" carried out the attacks, as it interviewed residents including traumatised children and showed a number of bloodied bodies lying in the streets.

"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," government newspaper Ath-Thawra said.

Assad, at a meeting with a top official from regional ally Iran, accused Western and neighboring powers of being behind a "conspiracy" against the Syrian regime, and promised he would not yield to pressure.  "The Syrian people will not allow this conspiracy to achieve its objectives" and will defeat it "at any price," he said.

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