Defiance and massacres as Syria regime struggles to secure Damascus

Friday 21/08/2015
Indiscriminate attacks on civilians

AMMAN - At least 50 bodies were retrieved from buildings leveled to the ground after Syrian army missiles hit residential areas in the rebel-held northeast of Damascus on Saturday, rescue workers said.

They said more bodies were believed to be under the rubble of buildings occupied by dozens of families in the city of Douma, about 15 km (10 miles) northeast of Damascus, with dozens of victims taken to field hospitals, many seriously wounded.

Rescue workers said 20 bodies were identified. A further 32 victims remained unidentified and the toll was expected to rise as civil defence workers step up the search amid the rubble of the four multi-storey buildings that were directly hit.

"There are entire families still under the rubble.

We couldn't reach them yet, because as you know the process of removing debris must be done with extreme caution," said Majd, an official from the Syrian civil defence corps, a group which operates in rebel-held areas.

The latest deaths came just six days after regime air strikes killed more than 100 people, sparking international condemnation of one of the bloodiest government attacks in Syria's war.

The Syrian Revolution General Commission, an activist group that publishes daily updates on the country's conflict, said women and children were among those killed.

"Wounded and dead are still being removed from under the rubble," the SRGC said in an emailed statement.

The Local Coordination Committees activist network said Saturday's bombardment struck four adjacent buildings.

Photographs published online by a local activist group called the Douma Coordination Committee depicted a young, bloodied child being carried across a field of concrete rubble.

In the pictures, volunteers searched through crumbling buildings, some missing entire walls, hoping to find survivors.

A child caked with blood and dust lay in a field clinic, his eyes half-open as a medic tended to him.

By early evening on Saturday, the group also began publishing the names and pictures of the dead on Facebook.

Douma is part of the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta area, which is regularly targeted by regime shelling and bombardment and has been under a suffocating siege for nearly two years.

On Saturday, government air strikes also hit the Eastern Ghouta town of Harasta, where troops loyal to embattled President Bashar al-Assad were clashing with Islamist rebels, the Britain-based Observatory said.

Syria's national news agency SANA said shelling by "terrorists" near Harasta had wounded four people.

It said "takfiri (extremist Sunni) terrorists" were based in Douma and Harasta. The government refers to all groups opposed to it as "terrorists".

According to Abdel Rahman, Eastern Ghouta is the largest and most important rebel bastion near Damascus.

It is largely controlled by the powerful Jaish al-Islam rebel group, but Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, Al-Nusra Front, also has a presence there.

On Sunday, at least 117 people -- mostly civilians -- were killed in government air raids on Douma, the Observatory said.

Their deaths were denounced by global powers as well as rights groups, which lambasted the Assad regime's indiscriminate attacks on civilians.

Human Rights Watch urged the United Nations to impose an arms embargo on the Syrian government after Sunday's attacks, which the rights group said demonstrated the regime's "appalling disregard for civilians".

But Damascus has insisted it is waging war against "terrorism", with Foreign Minister Walid Muallem defending last week's attacks.

He said "many of the terrorists use civilians as human shields, so what is claimed about massacres in Douma or elsewhere is fabricated news".

The deaths in Eastern Ghouta come two years after a chemical weapons attack on the area killed hundreds of people and was largely blamed on the government.

Also on Saturday, the family of celebrated archaeologist Khaled al-Assaad, who was executed by the extremist Islamic State group earlier this week, fled to safety from the ancient city of Palmyra.

Syrian antiquities head Mamoun Abdulkarim said Assaad's wife and three sons -- including the current director of antiquities in Palmyra, Walid al-Assaad -- reached the government-held city of Homs on Saturday.