Death toll from ISIS attack climbs to 240 in predominately Druze Sweida
TUNIS - More than 240 people have been reported killed following coordinated Islamic State attacks in the province and town of Sweida in southern Syria on Wednesday.
This was the most severe attack on Sweida, whose population is predominantly Druze, in the seven years of Syria’s civil war.
Early on Wednesday morning, as market holders were setting up their stalls, four suicide bombers entered the town, detonating their deadly cargo. Simultaneously, ISIS militants attacked isolated houses and villages to Sweida’s north and east, gunning down many as they slept.
Zeina, a resident of the tiny village of Al-Matuna within Sweida province, told AFP that her family woke up to the sound of gunfire and grenade blasts at around 5:30 am on Wednesday.
"My relative shot back at one of the fighters outside our home and we heard him scream: 'The infidels have killed me'," she told the agency.
Her cousin and his wife were both killed.
"The villages that were attacked were on edge last night, and all the men were on high alert," Zeina, 32, said on Thursday.
As of Thursday, the death toll stood at 246, 135 of them civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group. The others killed were said to be pro-government fighters, or residents who had taken up arms to defend their villages.
"The toll keeps rising as civilians who were wounded are dying and people who were unaccounted for are found dead," Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
At least 56 jihadists died carrying out the assault, the Observatory said. The Islamic State were quick to claim responsibility, posting gruesome images of the beheading of four government fighters it had captured.
Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar Assad continued to consolidate control of south-west Syria, which has brought the Syrian army into increasing conflict with the remaining pockets of the Islamic State there. On Tuesday, a Syrian fighter jet was shot down by Israel while, Damascus claimed, carrying out strafing missions against Islamic State targets in the area.
Writing on Twitter on Thursday, Director of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma Joshua Landis suggested that the Sweida attack may have been a diversion intended to distract the Syrian army from advancing upon established Islamic State positions within the Golan.
News websites in Sweida alleged that some of the jihadists who took part in the attack had previously been given safe passage out of the Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus to the Badiya desert by the government. The Sweida websites posted images purporting to show ISIS fighters killed in the assault with identification cards showing they were from Yarmouk.
Speaking on Thursday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem confirmed that the Badiya had been the launching point for the attack, state news agency SANA reported.
The attack has drawn international condemnation., with the International Committee of the Red Cross calling it "senseless and tragic."
"More distressing reports out of Syria of 200 civilians killed in Sweida city yesterday," it said on Twitter. "We repeat: Civilians are not part of the fight."
More than 350,000 people have been killed since Syria's conflict erupted seven years ago, but repeated global efforts at bringing about a negotiated solution have failed to stem the bloodshed.