BEIRUT (AFP) – The death toll in coordinated Islamic State group attacks in Syria’s Sweida neared 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 their 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 246 on Thursday, 135 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.
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 that represent the Druze community.
At least 56 jihadists died carrying out the assault.
– IS regroups –
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.
The assault came after the jihadists suffered a series of defeats that saw them ousted from the last urban pockets of the sprawling cross-border “caliphate” they proclaimed in Iraq and Syria in 2014.
In May, the last IS fighters in Yarmuk refugee camp in the southern outskirts of Damascus were bused out with their relatives to desert territory still held by the group.
News websites in Sweida alleged that some of the jihadists who took part in Wednesday’s attack had been given safe passage out of Yarmuk.
They 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.
State news agency 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 assault 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.
UN humanitarian coordinator in Syria Ali al-Zaatari condemned the “terrorist bombing in Sweida city”, saying all civilians should be protected.
Syria’s Druze minority makes up around three percent of the population. They are regarded as heretics by the Sunni Muslim extremists of IS.