Syrian regime accused of ‘atrocity on a new scale’ in Daraya

State television claims that Assad's army has 'cleansed terrorists' in six-day operation
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The Syrian town of Daraya was counting its dead yesterday, hurriedly excavating mass graves for the scores of victims of what may be one of the bloodiest door-to-door operations by the regime so far.

Amateur videos showed bodies lined up in the town's buildings, including grim footage of dozens of corpses in the local mosque.

The exact death toll from the six-day assault on the Sunni town just south-west of Damascus could not be immediately verified, but activists put the count at more than 300. They claimed many were killed "execution-style" on Saturday as the regime raided buildings following their shelling campaign, saying many of the dead were found dead huddled in basements where they had gathered to shelter.

On entering the town late on Friday after five days of bombardment from helicopters and tanks, regime troops are said to have moved about 200 metres at a time. They would then shell the streets in front of them and raid the area, activists said. The state news agency claimed to have "cleansed" Daraya of "terrorist groups".

An activist who works in humanitarian rescue operations and did not wish to be named said she managed to gain access to the area on Saturday and had been deeply shaken by what she saw. At one checkpoint she said she witnessed soldiers become aggravated after stopping three men who were not carrying their identification cards.

"They took them behind a barricade of sandbags and slaughtered them there," she said. "I saw splashes of blood but then started vomiting and couldn't look anymore."

Later, she said she helped pull five family members from their bombed- out home, including a heavily pregnant woman and her eight-month-old niece named Tuqa. "We could smell blood and rot everywhere," she said. "They had hidden in the bathroom when the house was bombed and that's why they were still alive. Others outside the bathroom died. [Tuqa] was full of shrapnel and had serious burns on her body, especially the neck."

After treating the family and moving them to safety, the activist said she broke down, crying for "four hours non-stop". 

Though women and children numbered among the dead, most of those in videos posted online appeared to be young men. A preliminary list of 197 names of those killed, compiled by activists yesterday, also largely consisted of male names, indicating that the regime may have been targeting in its raids those it suspected of being fighters. 

The departure of UN observers makes the reports of such atrocities more difficult than ever to verify and activists have had to backtrack on their death tolls for such "massacres" in the past. Still, there were numerous accounts of large-scale killings. Dr Mo'ath, who tended to the injured throughout the assault, said many were shot as they tried to flee.

"The snipers opened fire on every move they saw," he said. "I treated a six-year-old child who was shot by a sniper in both legs and had also lost two fingers. His three-year-old brother had been killed. His father had to make a very hard choice and leave the body of his three-year-old there to carry his alive son in order to rescue him."

He said he was forced to work with kitchen knives and stitch people's injuries with sewing thread due to a lack of equipment after regime troops set fire to the town's main pharmacy and a field hospital.

Daraya is known for its peaceful political protests and is the birthplace of the Local Co-ordination Committees, an activist network.

"We know well about the brutality of the regime, but this still surprised us," Osama Nassar, a local activist, said. "We didn't expect to have this in our home town."