The bodies of dozens of executed young men were discovered in a small canal in the Syrian city of Aleppo, before being dragged out and lined up on the muddy riverbank in a chilling scene that underscored the brutality of the country’s grinding civil war.
Foreign journalists were able to access the area and verify reports from rebels and activists that at least 65 corpses had been found in the Quweiq River in Bustan al-Qasr. An Agence France Presse correspondent at the scene said 78 bodies were recovered by the end of the day, with more still in the water, unable to be retrieved due to sniper fire.
In a haunting video posted by activists a cameraman picks his way through the bodies at the riverside. Bloated and mud-caked, many had their hands bound and appeared to have bullet wounds to the head, still seeping blood. After zooming in on 37 corpses – some of whom appear to be in their teens, dressed in jeans and trainers – he lifts his camera to the riverbank in front of him, where at least a dozen more bodies lie in the distance.
Residents gathered at the riverbank to search for missing loved ones.
“My brother disappeared weeks ago when he was crossing [through] the regime-held zone, and we don’t know where he is or what has become of him,” Mohammed Abdel Aziz told AFP as he examined the bodies.
The area of Bustan al-Qasr, a neighbourhood just northeast of the key battleground of Salaheddine, remains contested and has been the scene of intense battles and airstrikes since Aleppo was convulsed by fighting in July.
The city remains divided, as neither side appears able to take the upper hand in the street battles. The 129-mile Quweiq River begins in Turkey and travels through government and rebel held districts of Aleppo before it reaches Bustan al-Qasr.
It remains unclear who the men were, as none were carrying identification.
Both sides have been accused of committing summary executions in the past. While activists and rebels squarely blamed the government, speculating that the men may have been killed further upstream, a regime official told news agencies that the men had been kidnapped by “terrorists” for being pro-government and had been executed in a park on Monday night.
“Now these terrorist groups are creating a media campaign, showing the bodies being recovered from the Quweiq River in an area under their control,” he said.
“Their families had made repeated attempts to negotiate their releases. We will disclose the identities of those killed as soon as we are able to secure the bodies.”
Over the past 22-months the Syrian conflict has morphed from a popular uprising into a multifaceted and increasingly sectarian war, claiming more than 60,000 lives.
Activists said the bodies were loaded onto trucks and taken away to be identified.
Another video showed the bodies of seven men piled into the back of a truck, one with a gaping wound in his head, eight more lying in the street, some covered with tarpaulin as crowds milled around. The video cuts to others in a pool of blood-stained water in the back of a white flatbed truck.
“They were killed only because they are Muslims,” said a bearded man in another video, speaking in front of a pickup truck piled with bodies.
Though corpses of men killed execution-style have been discovered in the city before, this was by far the largest mass killing to be publicised, adding Aleppo’s Bustan al-Qasr to the string of place names that will be remembered for the atrocities that took place there.
“This is another new massacre that has been committed in Syria, adding to the constant massacres that have been occurring, while the world watches silently and the international and Arab community are being hypocrites,” the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in astatement. The Local Coordination Committees put the death toll across the country at 157, including 80 dead in Bustan al-Qasr.
AFP correspondent Antonio Rodriguez told The Independent that he had counted 78 bodies that had been pulled from the river in a makeshift morgue at the nearby Yarmuk School. “There were 78 corpses in four rows and covered with blue sheets, beside them a number,” he said.
“Families came to identify them. Most of the dead had a single shot to the head, and his hands tied behind his back, leaving no doubt that they were executed.”