Slaughter Reported Near Damascus, Jdaidet al-Fadl Massacre
By HANIA MOURTADA and HALA DROUBI, NYTimes, 04-21-2013
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian opposition activists said Sunday that government forces had killed at least 80 people in a town south of Damascus, and then carried out mass arrests as the residents tried to bury the bodies.
Residents in the town, Jdaidet al-Fadl, and activists described a three-day campaign in which soldiers from the army and loyalist militias systematically burned houses, arrested men, took over field hospitals and killed the wounded.
The state news agency SANA gave a somewhat different account: “Armed forces units inflicted heavy losses upon terrorists in the town of Jdaidet al-Fadl in the Damascus countryside, injuring a number of them and killing others.”
Neither version of events could be independently confirmed.
The town is near a military base along a corridor connecting the city of Dara’a with two southern suburbs of Damascus — Daraya and Moadhamiya — that have been hotly contested. Rebels have hung on in the two suburbs through months of withering shelling and airstrikes.
The area has grown in importance in recent months as weapons have been sent from Jordan north to rebel groups in Syria, with American assistance. Both sides have stepped up fighting in the area.
Shamel al-Jolani, an activist who lives nearby, said area residents were able to document the names of 80 people who had been killed. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group that tracks the conflict through a network of contacts in Syria, said the victims included 71 men, 3 children and 6 women. It said 19 of the men were rebel fighters.
Residents said the death toll was much higher — and the Observatory said the total could reach 250 — but that it was difficult to identify and count the victims because the fighting was continuing and because many of the bodies had been disfigured.
“They’re just scattered limbs and charred bodies that are completely unrecognizable,” Mr. Jolani said in an interview conducted over Skype.
Video images posted on the Internet by activists appeared to show a row of bodies, bloodied and wrapped in carpets or bags. Several appeared to have been shot in the face. Most were men, but a few seemed to be children.
The town appears to have been badly damaged. By Mr. Jolani’s account, electricity, water and communications links have been cut off and the town’s only bakery destroyed. He estimated that 300 to 400 people were in makeshift hospitals and that “hundreds of shells landed here in the past five days.”
Many people who have fled the Damascus suburbs also were sheltering in the area. Mr. Jolani said hundreds of people were arrested on Sunday and taken to the military base, which is home to a unit called the Regiment 100.
An activist in the Damascus suburbs said that rebel fighters withdrew from the area near Jdaidet al-Fadl after running out of ammunition. “It’s not acceptable to pull out and leave civilians behind,” he said. “Sometimes I feel the Free Syrian Army is collaborating with the regime.”
The sound of gunfire echoed through the streets overnight, Mr. Jolani said, but it was not clear whether it came from the fighting or from summary executions.
Saeed, an activist from Jdaidet al-Fadl who recently fled Syria, said Sunday that his parents and siblings who were still in the town had survived the attack and described it to him. “Snipers shot whoever was caught trying to escape,” they told him. “Some were shot three days ago, and their bodies were left in their places.”
He said that his father was arrested and later released, though others who were detained were found killed.
On Saturday night, he said, the army captured the hospitals; doctors fled, and “the army then burned all the wounded people there.”
Mr. Jolani said all members of a family named Turkmani were killed and burned — mother, father, son and daughter — and that more arrests were made at the funerals on Sunday. He described government soldiers “driving through the streets in their cars and chanting for Assad,” referring to Syria’s embattled president, Bashar al-Assad.
The local opposition committee in Jdaidet al-Fadl posted an emotional statement online explaining why it had not posted video clips to back up its assertions.
“We don’t have satellite Internet,” they wrote. “We don’t have generators. And if we use regular generators, the area from which the sound of the generators can be heard gets shelled or raided. My dear, I stand in a place exposed to a sniper for 15 minutes, just to be able to publish one single 300-kilobyte picture. The media blackout is contributing to our killing.”
There were new warnings on Sunday that fighting in Syria could spill into Lebanon. Syrian rebels say that the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which supports the Assad government, has sent new forces across the border to the Syrian town of Qusayr in recent weeks.
On Sunday, the rebel military council in Qusayr and the militant Islamic group Nusra Front issued a joint statement, threatening to “transfer the battle of blood to the heart of Lebanon” by attacking Hezbollah strongholds near Hermel in the Bekaa Valley. The statement told civilians to stay away, and it warned of attacks with antitank shells and surface-to-surface missiles.
Syrian rebels often take shelter in Lebanon, and have steadily traded fire with Syrian government forces across the border.
Video clips posted on YouTube by anti-Assad activists appeared to show rebel fighters firing missiles into Lebanon, punctuating their efforts with cries of “God is great” and pledging to keep retaliating for as long as “Hezbollah targets our children and wives.”
Hezbollah denies that it has sent any fighters into Syria; rather, it says, Lebanese Shiites living in Syria who may have Hezbollah affiliations have defended themselves.
The main Syrian exile opposition coalition urged the Lebanese government on Sunday to rein in Hezbollah or risk dragging Lebanon deeper into the Syrian conflict.
Syrians fleeing the fighting have also taken refuge in Jordan in large and growing numbers — more than 500,000 by some estimates — and the Jordanian government is struggling to cope. The country’s cabinet decided on Sunday to send a letter to the United Nations Security Council warning that the influx posed a threat to Jordan’s security, and calling on the international community to provide more financial support. The government estimates that hosting the refugees has already cost it nearly $500 million.
A riot in the sprawling Zaatari refugee camp Friday night left a Jordanian security officer in critical condition, and eight Syrians were arrested, according to Andrew Harper of theUnited Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. He said aid workers were meeting with refugee leaders in the camp to calm tensions.
“We’re trying to tell everyone, the more problems they cause, the less likelihood that Jordan may want to keep its borders open,” Mr. Harper said in a telephone interview on Sunday. “They’re guests of Jordan, and in a society like this, guests are respected. But you’d also expect guests to abide by the laws of the country.”
Hania Mourtada reported from Beirut, and Hala Droubi reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut.