Amid government offensive, a mass burial in Syria

This citizen journalism image provided by Shaam News Network SNN, taken on Sunday, Aug. 26, 2012, purports to show people killed by shabiha, pro-government militiamen, being buried in a mass grave in Daraya, Syria. The shabiha are armed men in civilian clothing who have been doing the Assad regime's dirty work for many years. Their direct links to the government are a source of much dispute and debate.
AP Photo/Shaam News Network

(AP) AMMAN - Dozens of bloodied bodies were buried Sunday in mass graves in a Damascus suburb where activists claim more than 300 people have been killed over the past week in a major government offensive to take back control of rebel-held areas in and around the capital.

The British-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 32 more dead bodies were found in the streets of Daraya on Sunday and that they had been killed by "gunfire and summary executions." Among them were three women and two children, the group said. It put the toll for the past week as at least 320.

Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, claimed 300 bodies were discovered Saturday in Daraya and 633 people have been killed there since the government launched its assault last week.

President Bashar Assad, in comments carried by state media, reiterated his long-standing claim that a foreign plot was behind the uprising against his rule and said he would not allow it to succeed "whatever the price might be."

Britain's minister for Middle East affairs, Alistair Burt, meanwhile, said if confirmed, the massacre "would be an atrocity on a new scale requiring unequivocal condemnation from the entire international community." He added that it "highlights the urgent need for international action to bring an end to the violence, end this culture of impunity and hold to account those responsible for these terrible acts."

Burt said he had discussed the killings with U.N. and Arab League Joint Special Representative for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi.

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It was impossible to independently verify the death tolls because of severe restrictions on media coverage of the conflict. However, activists and residents have reported excessive use of force by the regime in major battles, with indiscriminate shelling from the ground and the air.

The Local Coordination Committees said some of those killed by regime forces in Daraya were buried in mass graves on Sunday. Video footage posted by the group showed bloodied bodies wrapped in colorful blankets lying next to each other with branches of date palms strewn over them.

Another video posted on the Internet and dated Saturday showed dozens of bodies on the floor of a mosque in Daraya. Most of the bodies were bloodied and wrapped in blankets. The anonymous commentator said there were at least 150 bodies there and blamed a pro-government militia known as shabiha for the killings. The authenticity of the two videos could not be independently confirmed.

The Local Coordination Committees said an additional 1,755 people had been detained in Daraya, suggesting that hundreds more might turn up dead.

On Thursday, troops backed by tanks and helicopter gunships stormed Daraya after intense shelling and fighting that lasted days.

The battle for Daraya showed the regime to be struggling to control Damascus and its suburbs though the firepower available to it is far superior to anything the rebels might have. Government forces are stretched thin, with a major ongoing battle for control of the nation's largest city, Aleppo in the north, as well as smaller scale operations in the east and south.

On Sunday, regime forces also used helicopter gunships and tanks to pound rebel-held areas in the northern city of Aleppo and the restive southern town of Daraa along the Jordanian border. The Observatory said it had reports of fatalities, but did not have exact numbers yet.

Activists say more than 20,000 people have died in 17 months of fighting in Syria, as an uprising that started with peaceful protests against Assad's rule has morphed into a civil war.

On the Turkish-Syrian border, several thousand Syrians gathered at Bab al-Salameh border crossing, having fled airstrikes in their northern towns and villages. They squatted on the sidewalks of three large hangars once used for cargo inspections of trucks. Some said they had been there a week or more.