BEIRUT: The opposition Syrian National Coalition has demanded an investigation into a widely reported ambush of Islamist fighters outside Damascus Wednesday, saying the victims were mainly civilians trying to escape a siege on the capital’s eastern Ghouta suburbs.
Syria’s state media and Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television, among other outlets, gave wide coverage to what was said to be the killing of at least 175 fighters, which they said were from the Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, and the Islam Army, a large, Salafist rebel militia.
The reports said the fighters included a number of non-Syrians, specifying them as nationals from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Chechnya.
Their coverage included footage from the site of the ambush, as army soldiers inspected the remains of several dozen men strewn across a dirt road. Al-Manar broadcast what it said was footage of the attack, which took place in the early morning hours of Wednesday.
Also circulating on social media are separate YouTube videos of the aftermath of the ambush, as government soldiers inspect the bodies, along with still photographs that purport to show bulldozers removing the corpses after government media toured the site.
The coalition Thursday condemned the killing and denied that hard-line Islamists were the targets.
“Pro-Assad forces ambushed a convoy of civilians,” it said.
“[They] were leaving because basic foods and medicine are scarce due to siege tactics deployed by the regime,” the coalition said in a statement. “The regime’s media reported that they were targeting ‘Islamic fighters,’ but instead sent vehicles into the area to move piles of dead civilians, in a stark violation of international humanitarian law.”
It urged the United Nations to investigate the incident.
In a rare sign of unity, the coalition’s version of events was backed by the Islamic Front, an alliance of seven Islamist rebel groups that do not recognize the coalition’s authority, as well as independent activist groups based in Syria.
The Islam Brigade, a member of the Islamic Front, has denied that its fighters were killed, saying that the dead were mainly civilians, accompanied by a number of fighters in a bid to flee the Ghouta.
The Human Rights Office of the Eastern Ghouta, which documents deaths and violence in the conflict on a daily basis, gave a similar version, saying that 175 people were trying to exit the eastern Ghouta via Otaiba when a string of mines were detonated by regime forces.
It said that Iraqi militiamen and fighters from Hezbollah were also involved in the attack and used heavy machine-gun fire to cut down those who survived the initial land mine explosions.
It claimed wounded survivors of the first two attacks who couldn’t flee were summarily executed at the site.
“Some members of this convoy survived the massacre, including people with serious injuries, and they were taken to a field hospital in the eastern Ghouta,” it added.
The group accused the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights of adopting the regime’s version of events, and said the group had no evidence or contact with activists in the area to back up its claims that fighters were the target.
The Observatory said that Hezbollah carried out the ambush, backed by army troops, but maintained that the victims were Islamist fighters – it said that 70 fighters were confirmed dead and that “contact was lost” with 89 others, who were also presumed to have lost their lives.
An activist with knowledge of the movements of fighters and civilians in the eastern Ghouta told The Daily Star that the ambush targeted one of two convoys that left the area that night, in a bid to head south and arrive in Jordan.
He said that the civilians were being escorted by a small, company-size group of fighters, numbering several dozen men but added that they were locals from the Ghouta, and not Nusra Front members or foreigners.
“The kind of fighters who perform such tasks can never be foreign jihadists, because they’re not comfortable with such tasks, and the locals won’t be comfortable with them either,” he said. “Moreover, you can’t have non-Syrians trying to guide you all the way to Jordan; they won’t be able to help avoid problems that could arise along the trip.”
The activist said the bodies of any women, children or elderly victims of the ambush were removed before the regime permitted filming at the site.
A range of pro-opposition websites and activists on social media have seized on a short video that was posted on YouTube by a pro-Hezbollah media figure, Hussein Murtada.
They argue that the presence of civilians in the convoy is made plain when the camera pans the various corpses lying on the ground, as a teddy bear is seen clearly, lying alongside one of the dead men.
Other activists weighing in seized on Al-Manar’s own grainy footage of the attacks, emphasizing that 175 fighters would not be walking leisurely in a long, single-file line on an exposed road, especially with enemy troops in the vicinity.
A YouTube video of Al-Manar’s coverage has been viewed by nearly 200,000 people, and even some individuals on pro-regime social media have expressed suspicions about the military value of the ambush, objecting to the way it was heavily promoted by the regime and its allies.