By Agence France-Presse
The death toll in coordinated Islamic State group attacks in Syria’s Sweida passed 250 on Thursday, the Druze-majority province’s heaviest loss of life of the seven-year civil war.
Sweida, which is mainly government-held, had been largely insulated from the conflict raging in the rest of the country since 2011.
But Wednesday’s onslaught shattered the relative calm and showed that IS retains the ability to mount deadly attacks against civilians, despite being ousted from its last remaining urban pockets in recent months.
Four suicide bombers struck the city of Sweida, while other IS fighters attacked villages to its north and east with guns and explosives.
The death toll reached 252 on Thursday, 139 of them civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.
The others killed were 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.
It was the deadliest attack for the province and one of the highest tolls in IS attacks across the country.
State television broadcast footage of the funeral processions in Sweida, showing men in the traditional white caps of the Druze minority exchanging condolences.
Men carried caskets draped in the two-star government flag and pictures of those killed, against a backdrop of the rainbow colours representing their community.
At least 63 jihadists died carrying out the assault, the Observatory said.
IS claimed responsibility in a series of statements on its propaganda channels on Wednesday.
It posted gruesome photographs showing jihadists beheading at least four men it said were government fighters it had captured in Sweida.
IS has suffered a series of defeats that saw it ousted from the last urban pockets of the sprawling cross-border “caliphate” it proclaimed in Iraq and Syria in 2014.
But it retains a presence, including in a pocket of the eastern province of Deir Ezzor and in parts of the vast central Badiya desert, including in Sweida.
On Thursday, Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem slammed the attacks as he hosted a delegation of Chinese diplomats in Damascus, according to state news agency SANA.
He said “Daesh (IS) remnants coming from the Badiya committed a brutal, barbaric crime that left hundreds dead and wounded.”
News websites in Sweida alleged that some of the jihadists who took part in Wednesday’s attack had been given safe passage out of the Yarmuk refugee camp in the southern outskirts of Damascus.
The last IS fighters in the camp were bused out with their relatives in May to desert territory still held by the group.
The Sweida websites posted images that purported to show IS fighters killed in the assault with identification cards showing they were from Yarmuk.
Zeina, a resident of the tiny village of Al-Matuna, said her family woke up to the sound of gunfire and grenade blasts at around 5:30 am (0230 GMT) 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 AFP.
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.
SANA said dozens were killed in the assault but did not give a specific toll.
It said calm returned to Sweida late on Wednesday after government forces and armed villagers surrounded the IS fighters and killed them.
The Observatory said Thursday regime forces were advancing in neighboring Daraa province’s western countryside, where they had retaken the IS-controlled town of Saham al-Golan.
Syrian government forces also raised the country’s flag on the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Thursday, the Observatory and a pro-government newspaper reported, four years since they were last deployed there.
The IS attack drew condemnation from the United Nations as well as government allies Russia and Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
“We condemn this disgraceful crime, its perpetrators, and anyone who stands behind it and the takfiri (extremist Muslim) ideology that these terrorist groups adopt,” Hezbollah said in a statement on Thursday.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said the attack was “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.”
Syria’s Druze minority makes up around three percent of the population. They are regarded as heretics by Sunni Muslim extremist groups including IS.
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.