Syrian activists fear heavy toll near Damascus


BEIRUT (AP) — Six days of fighting near Damascus has killed at least 100 people and possibly many more, activists said Monday, in what both sides say may be a dramatic spike in the Syria's civil war death toll.

The reports came as President Bashar Assad's forces pressed an offensive against rebels closing in on parts of the Syrian capital, and government troops moved to encircle the contested town of Qusair near the Lebanese border.

The exact number dead in the Jdaidet Artouz and Jdaidet al-Fadel districts could not be confirmed. The two adjacent neighborhoods are about 15 kilometers (10 miles) southwest of Damascus.

The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, put the death toll at 483. It said most of the victims were killed in Jdaidet Artouz.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the death toll, mostly from shelling, could be as high as 250. Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory, said the group has documented 101 names of those killed, including three children, 10 women and 88 men, but he thought the toll would be much higher. The dead included 24 rebels, he said.

Both activist groups, the Observatory and the LCC, rely on a network of activists on the ground in different parts of Syria.

"What is happening in the suburbs of Damascus are war crimes and genocide," said George Sabra, vice president of the main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition. He was appointed as caretaker president of the group Monday, replacing Mouaz al-Khatib, who resigned.

At a news conference in Istanbul, Turkey, Sabra put the number of those killed at "more than 500" and said more than 1,000 were wounded. He did not give a basis for those numbers.

State-run news agency SANA said Syrian troops "inflicted heavy losses" on the rebels in the suburbs.

A government official in Damascus told The Associated Press that rebels were behind the "massacre" in Jdaidet al-Fadel, saying they sought to blame government forces who entered the area after the killings.

"The army discovered the massacre after entering the area," the official said on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Jdaidet al-Fadel is inhabited mostly by Syrians who fled the Golan Heights after the area was captured by Israel in 1967. Jdaidet Artouz has a large Christian and Druse population — two minority communities that have generally stood by Assad or on the sidelines.

The killings appeared reminiscent of violence in the Damascus suburb of Daraya in August. At the time activists said days of shelling and a killing spree by government troops left 300 to 600 dead.

Mohammed Saeed, an activist based near Damascus, said rebels withdrew as soon as the government offensive began last week. After that, he said via Skype, troops and pro-government gunmen stormed the area and over several days killed about 250 people.

Saeed said the area has no electricity, water, or mobile phone service. "There is widespread destruction in Jdaidet al-Fadel, including its only bakery," he said.

Reports of death tolls in Syria's civil war often conflict, especially in areas that are difficult to access because of the fighting. The government also bars many foreign journalists from covering the conflict.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the reports of the massacre underline the urgent need to bring Syria's war to an end.

"I am appalled by the reports of the killing by Syrian Government forces of dozens of people, including women and children, in the town of Jdaidet Al-Fadel, a suburb of Damascus," Hague said in a statement. "This is yet another reminder of the callous brutality of the Assad regime and the terrible climate of impunity inside Syria."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Monday he shared with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry "a disposition to seek a political outcome as soon as possible and look for ways to transfer this situation into a channel of negotiations between the government and the opposition" in Syria. The two spoke Saturday.

Lavrov said he and Kerry would discuss what the U.S. and Russia could do to "induce those who are currently resisting the peace process to change their position" at the NATO-Russia summit in Brussels on Tuesday.

Lifting the European Union embargo on supplying weapons to the Syrian opposition would violate legal obligations not to arm non-state actors, said Lavrov, whose country is among Assad's strongest supporters.

Also Monday, two bombings targeted an army checkpoint and a military post in a third Damascus suburb, Mleiha, killing eight soldiers, according to the Observatory.

SANA said a suicide attacker detonated a car bomb in Mleiha, injuring several people.

The army also pressed its offensive near the Lebanese border, where it has been pushing for two weeks to regain control with the help of a Hezbollah-backed militia known as the Popular Committees. The region is strategic because it links Damascus with the Mediterranean coastal enclave that is the heartland of Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

The fighting around Qusair also points to the sectarian nature of the Syrian conflict, which pits a government dominated by the Alawite minority against a primarily Sunni Muslim rebellion, and underscores widely held fears that the civil war could drag in neighboring states.

In Lebanon, there are deep divisions over the Syrian conflict, with Lebanese Sunnis mostly backing the opposition while Shiites support Assad. Lebanese fighters have also traveled to Syria to join either Sunni or Shiite groups, and several have been killed in clashes.

At the news conference, Sabra accused Hezbollah of "occupying Syrian villages, killing civilians and terrorizing them." He called on the Lebanese government to put an end to what he said were Hezbollah incursions into Syrian territory, calling them a "declaration of war" against Syrians.

The man he replaced, al-Khatib, a respected Muslim preacher seen as a moderate unifying figure, tried to step down in March, citing frustration over what he called a lack of international support and constraints imposed on the body. The Coalition rejected his resignation then, and he agreed to stay on temporarily.