BEIRUT -- Row upon row of bloodied bodies wrapped in colourful blankets laid out on a mosque floor in a Damascus suburb. Long narrow graves tightly packed with dozens of victims. Nestled among them, two babies were wrapped in a single blood-soaked blanket, a yellow pacifier dangling beside them from a palm frond.
Evidence mounted on Sunday of a new massacre in Syria's deepening civil war, with activists reporting a killing spree by government forces after they seized the suburb of Daraya from rebel control three days ago. Reports of the death toll ranged from more than 300 to 600.
Video footage posted by activists showed lineups of corpses, many of them men with gunshot wounds to their heads. During mass burials on Sunday, bodies were sprayed with water from hoses -- a substitute for the ritual washing prescribed by Islam in the face of so many dead.
The gruesome images appeared to expose the lengths to which the regime of authoritarian President Bashar Assad was willing to go to put down the rebellion that first broke out in March last year. In an ominous commentary, Assad was quoted by his official media as saying his regime would carry on fighting "whatever the price."
"It is clear that was collective punishment," Khaled Al-Shami, an activist from Damascus, said of the killings in Daraya. "I am certain that the coming days will reveal more massacres, but by then others will have taken place and people will forget about Daraya."
The video footage and death toll were impossible to independently verify because of severe restrictions on media coverage of the conflict. However activists and residents have reported excessive use of force by the regime, with indiscriminate bombing from the air and ground.
"Daraya, a city of dignity, has paid a heavy price for demanding freedom," the Local Coordination Committees activist group said in a statement, adding the Assad regime targeted residents with executions and revenge killings "regardless of whether they were men, women or children."
With a population of about 200,000, Daraya is part of "Rural Damascus," or Reef Damascus, a province that includes the capital's suburbs and farmland. It has been a stronghold of support for rebels fighting the government since the start of the uprising, posing a grave threat to Assad's seat of power.
Troops backed by tanks stormed the town Thursday after a siege that lasted several days during which no one was allowed to enter or leave, activists and residents said.
Rebels were no match for Assad's tanks and helicopter gunships. Most of the killings, according to activists, took place Friday and Saturday, but the extent of the carnage only began to be revealed Sunday.
The British-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 45 more dead bodies were found in the streets of Daraya on Sunday and they had been killed by "gunfire and summary executions." Among them, it said, were three women and two children. It said the toll for the past week was at least 320.
The Local Coordination Committees also reported 45 deaths Sunday and said 300 bodies were discovered a day earlier in Daraya, with a total of 633 people killed there since the government launched its assault. It said 1,755 people had been detained in Daraya, suggesting that hundreds more might turn up dead.
Video footage posted by the group showed rows of bodies wrapped in blood-soaked blankets, with date palms and tree branches strewn over them. Someone was shown spraying the bodies with a hose, a substitute for the ritual washing of the dead prescribed by Islam's teachings.
Al-Shami, the Damascus activist, and Abdul-Rahman said Daraya was under a de facto curfew Sunday, as Assad's forces carried out house-to-house searches as well as execution-style killings. The Internet had been disconnected by authorities, said Al-Shami, who did not use his real name for fear of reprisals.
Britain's Middle East minister, Alistair Burt, said on Sunday if confirmed, the Daraya killings "would be an atrocity on a new scale requiring unequivocal condemnation from the entire international community."
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.
-- The Associated Press