The bodies of at least 67 Syrian civilians, many summarily killed by the Islamic State group, have been discovered in a central town in Syria retaken from IS by government troops over the weekend, the Syrian government and activists said Monday.
A senior Syrian official described the attack as a “shocking massacre,” saying the search and documentation of those killed in the town of Qaryatayn, in Homs province, is still under way.
The news of the gruesome find began to emerge first late on Sunday. The number of bodies was likely to climb.
Some were shot in the street as IS militants retreated from the town, gunned down because they were suspected of working with the governments, according to activists. At least 35 of the casualties were found shot and their bodies dumped in a shaft.
The apparent revenge killings underscore the Islamic State group’s ability to inflict heavy losses in Syria even while its militants are on the retreat in north and eastern Syria, days after having been defeated in Raqqa, the group’s one-time “capital” of its self-proclaimed caliphate. They also raise the specter of more revenge killings by the group while it fights to hang on to its last strongholds in Syria.
An Associated Press video, filmed as Syrian government troops recaptured Qaryatayn, showed several bodies in the streets of the town. In the video, a town resident says IS “monsters” killed more than a 100 people, including soldiers and civilians.
“These are people who don’t know God, they don’t know anything. They killed children and women with knives, they beat women, broke their arms,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity fearing for his own safety.
Talal Barazi, the governor of Homs province, told The Associated Press on Monday that most of the bodies were of townspeople who were government employees or were affiliated with Syria’s ruling Baath party.
He said the killings went on for the three weeks that IS was in town and “terrorized” its residents, adding that at least 13 residents remain missing while six bodies have not been identified.
“It is a shocking massacre,” he said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had documented the killings of at least 128 people killed in Qaryatayn during the last days of IS control of the town.
On Saturday, Syrian troops and allied militias regained control of the town, which was held by IS for three weeks. The government-run Syrian Central Military Media at the time said the Syrian army and its allies restored security and stability to Qaryatayn after clearing the town of IS fighters.
The head of the Observatory, Rami Abdurrahman, sad that what happened in the town was a “massacre.”
The activist-run Palmyra Coordination Committee published the names of 67 civilians confirmed killed and also said the number was likely to rise. It said at least 35 were found shot and dumped into a deep shaft.
The activist-run group said other bodies were also found in the town streets — apparently of people shot by pro-government forces and suspected of working with IS. The Observatory also said it documented at least 12 killed at the hands of pro-government troops after they regained control of the town.
IS militants first seized Qaryatayn in August 2015, and relied on the strategically located town to defend another of their bastions, the historic city of Palmyra. At the time, thousands of the town’s Christian residents fled, fearing the extremist group’s brutality.
With Russian backing, Syrian troops regained control of the town in April 2016. But IS, facing major setbacks around Syria and Iraq, launched a new attack on the town in late September and recaptured it.
At the time, Russia accused the United States, which is battling the Islamic State group, of looking the other way and allowing IS to attack Qaryatayn.
Most of the IS militants who were involved in attacks on the town were local residents. Pro-government media blamed the loss of Qaryatayn for the second time on what it described as militant “sleeper cells.”
There was no immediate comment from the government in Damascus on the find of the civilian bodies in Qaryatayn.
Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.
Source: Associated Press