Middle East

Syria conflict: 'Scores of bodies found' near Damascus

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Media captionActivists say many of the dead were victims of execution-style killings

Syrian opposition activists say scores of bodies have been found in a town near the capital, Damascus, accusing government troops of a "massacre".

Many of those killed in the town of Darayya were victims of execution-style killings, the activists said.

According to unconfirmed reports, more than 300 bodies were discovered in houses and basement shelters.

Without commenting on the activists' claim, Syrian state TV said Darayya was being "cleansed of terrorist remnants".

The UK said that if the reports were confirmed, the killings would "be an atrocity on a new scale".

Meanwhile, Syrian Vice-President Farouq al-Shara has greeted an Iranian delegation in Damascus, quashing weeks of speculation that he had defected to the opposition.

President Bashar al-Assad, who also met the Iranian delegation, said Syria would continue its current policy "whatever the cost" and accused Western nations of a regional conspiracy.

'House-to-house' raids

The forces of President Assad launched an assault on Darayya on Saturday, after days of heavy bombardment.

The BBC's Barbara Plett in Beirut says the attack was part of a wider campaign to reclaim the southern outskirts of Damascus, where rebels have been regrouping since being driven out a month ago.

Activists on the ground later posted unverified video footage on the internet, which shows rows of bodies side by side in the Abu Auleiman al-Darani mosque.

The activists say that many of the victims had gunshot wounds to the head and chest and were killed during house-to-house raids by government troops.

"Assad's army has committed a massacre in Darayya," an opposition member told Reuters.

The activist added that most of the victims had been killed at close range, and some died from sniper fire.

The UK Foreign Office said it had opposition reports that "300 people, including women and children, were killed and that some were shot at close range".

Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt said that, if confirmed, the killings would require "unequivocal condemnation from the entire international community".

Mr Burt added: "It would make [Saturday] the bloodiest day since the unrest in Syria began in March 2011, with over 400 killed across the country."

The opposition Local Coordination Committees group put the death toll for Saturday at 440 across Syria.

Image caption Vice-President Farouq al-Shara appeared on Sunday, ending speculation he had defected

Another opposition group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, says 320 people were killed in Darayya over five days, not on Saturday alone.

The claims by the activists have not been independently verified because of restrictions placed on foreign media across Syria.

The official Syrian state news agency said: "Our heroic armed forces cleansed Darayya from remnants of armed terrorist groups who committed crimes against the sons of the town and scared them and sabotaged and destroyed public and private property."

Meanwhile Vice-President Shara was seen entering his office for a meeting with an Iranian delegation, following weeks of rumours that he had defected.

State media said a "fake" email had been sent out saying Mr Shara had been sacked and that this was "completely wrong".

After welcoming the Iranian team, President Assad accused some Western and regional countries of trying to "deviate Syria from its stance".

State news agency Sana quoted him as saying: "Because Syria is the cornerstone, foreign powers are targeting it so their conspiracy succeeds across the entire region."

Failed ceasefire

Local activists say the type of mass killing reportedly carried out in Darayya, with dozens of bodies being discovered following government raids, has increased in recent months.

Image caption Heavy fighting is continuing in Aleppo in the north

Human Rights Watch said it was not a new pattern, but was now happening in more areas and in greater numbers.

An earlier report from United Nations observers found that both sides had carried out massacres, but the Syrian army was responsible for a far greater number of deaths.

Fighting continued in other parts of Syria on Sunday, including in the second city of Aleppo, where fighter jets dropped bombs on rebel-held positions in what was described as the fiercest fighting there in the past week.

In a separate development, the head of the UN mission to Syria left the country after the mission had been wound up.

Senegalese Lt Gen Babacar Gaye joined a UN convoy to Lebanon on Saturday.

Last week, the UN decided against extending the mission, which was originally part of a six-point peace plan for Syria.

However, the ceasefire mandated by the plan never took hold and rising violence forced the UN monitors to be confined to their hotels since June.