Activists in Syria said Sunday that Syrian troops killed dozens of civilians as they withdrew from the Damascus suburb of Jdeidet al-Fadel after five days of fighting. Some of those killed, they said, were shot at close range in a makeshift hospital.
Abu Ahmad al-Rabi', an activist in the adjacent district of Jdeidet Artouz, said the bodies of 85 people, including 28 found at the hospital in al-Fadel, were recorded Sunday evening. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition monitoring group based in Britain, said the death toll could reach 250.
There was no immediate confirmation of the activists' account of what they described as a "massacre," including of women and children. Syrian authorities have banned most independent media since the uprising began in 2011.
Syria's Sana state news agency, referred to the government's operations in al-Fadel as one of several ongoing offensives against rebels in the Damascus suburbs, said the military "inflicted big losses on terrorists in Jdeidet al-Fadel and destroyed weapons and ammunition and killed and wounded members of the terrorist groups."
Leena Omar, another activist in Jdeitdet Artouz, said the Syrian army began shelling al-Fadel on Tuesday in an attempt to root out rebels operating in the working-class town. She said civilians came out of their houses on Sunday evening to find dozens of corpses in the streets.
"The army left al-Fadel at 11 a.m. We discovered corpses left everywhere when the army withdrew, but we don't know how many were killed altogether," she said via Skype.
Jamal al-Golani, a member of the Revolution Leadership Council opposition group, told Reuters that the number of dead may be higher than 250, mostly shot at close range, but the presence of army patrols made documenting all of them difficult.
"Jdeidet al-Fadel was militarily a lost cause from day one because it was surrounded by the army from every direction. There are almost no wounded because they were shot on the spot," he said.
The killings happened over several days when pro-Assad forces stormed an area where there were up to 270 rebels, Mr. Golani said, adding that he had counted 98 bodies in the streets and 86 people who he said had been summarily executed in makeshift clinics where they were lying wounded.
The district, part of Sunni Muslim towns surrounding the capital that have been at the forefront of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, is situated near hilltop bases for elite loyalist forces, who mostly belong to Assad's minority Alawite sect.
Rafif Jouejati, another anti-government activist, said in an e-mail that Free Syrian Army fighters ran out of ammunition and fled the area on Saturday.
Jdeidet Artouz and al-Fadel straddle a highway linking Damascus with the Golan Heights, where Damascus has lost control of several towns, but more importantly, the twin towns are located 15 kilometres from the Syrian army's Brigade 100 base and the Mezzah military airport, both key objectives for rebels fighting the President's forces.
The activists also said 532 people were killed around the country on Sunday with the Jdeidet al-Fadel deaths.
Syrian state television showed troops in a pickup truck patrolling the dusty town and several bodies of dead men which a commander described as "terrorists" in front of a building that appears to have been wrecked by gunfire.
Video footage taken by activists showed three bodies of young men lying next to each other and apparently hit by bullets, and bodies in what they described as a makeshift clinic, two of which hit in the face. In a pattern seen in other towns and neighbourhoods overrun by Mr. al-Assad's forces, activists said shops in Jdeidet al Fadel were looted and torched.
Government forces have been accused of massacring hundreds of Sunnis in areas they stormed in Hama and Homs provinces and in Damascus suburbs, while international rights groups say rebel forces have also committed atrocities, although on a smaller scale.
At a conference on Saturday in Istanbul that brought together the opposition leadership and its chief international supporters, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the Obama administration would double its non-lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition with an additional $123-million in supplies. That could include for the first time armoured vehicles, body armour, night vision goggles and other defensive military supplies, officials said.
The additional aid brings total non-lethal U.S. assistance to the opposition to $250-million since the fighting began more than two years ago. Washington has refused so far to provide weapons to Syria's rebels out of fears they could fall in the hands of extremists.
With reports from Reuters and Associated Press