- The attacks hit several areas of the largely government-held southern province of Sweida
- Daesh claimed responsibility for the violence, saying “soldiers of the caliphate” attacked Syrian government positions
BEIRUT: A string of suicide blasts and raids claimed by the Daesh group killed more than 220 people in southern Syria on Wednesday, in one of the militants’ deadliest ever assaults in the country.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the attacks hit several areas of the largely government-held southern province of Sweida, where Daesh retains a presence in a northeastern desert region.
They came almost a week into a deadly Russia-backed regime campaign to oust Daesh fighters from a holdout in a neighboring province of the country’s south.
Daesh claimed responsibility for the violence, saying “soldiers of the caliphate” attacked Syrian government positions and security outposts in Sweida city, then detonated their explosive belts.
The Britain-based Observatory said three suicide attackers set off booby-trapped belts in Sweida city, as other blasts hit villages to the north and east. A fourth suicide explosion hit the city later.
“Daesh fighters then stormed villages in the province’s northeast and killed residents in their homes,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.
The suicide blasts and raids killed around 220 people including around 100 civilians, the Observatory said.
The remaining dead were pro-regime fighters, most of whom where residents who had picked up weapons to defend their villages, it said.
Sweida, whose residents are mostly from the Druze minority, has been relatively insulated from the war that has ravaged the rest of the country since 2011.
“It’s the bloodiest death toll in Sweida province since the start of the war” in 2011 and one of the deadliest ever in Syria, Abdel Rahman said.
The violence also left 30 Daesh fighters dead, including the suicide attackers.
The militants captured at least three of the seven villages they targeted but clashes were ongoing Wednesday, the Observatory said.
State media confirmed the attacks had killed and wounded people in Sweida city and villages to the north and east, but did not give a specific toll.
SANA published images of the attack’s aftermath in Sweida city, showing the remains of a victim sprawled on a staircase near a damaged wall.
Abandoned shoes lay in the middle of the road among fruit that had spilled out of cartons.
The UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Syria Ali Al-Zaatari condemned the “terrorist bombing in Sweida city today,” saying all civilians should be protected.
And the Russian foreign ministry said the Daesh attacks “confirm the need for energetic and coordinated efforts by the international community to eradicate this universal evil from Syrian territory.”
State television said the army was targeting Daesh in the province’s east.
Despite pro-government forces ousting the group from urban centers in eastern Syria last year, surprise Daesh raids in recent months have killed dozens of regime and allied fighters.
The militants still hold some territory in Syria’s south, including in Sweida and another isolated but larger patch in neighboring Daraa province, to the west.
That pocket is held by Jaish Khaled bin Al-Walid, a terrorist faction whose 1,000 fighters have pledged allegiance to Daesh.
After ousting non-militant rebels from most of the country’s south, President Bashar Assad’s troops and his Russian allies are now closing in on the Daesh pocket in Daraa province.
SANA said the Daesh attacks on neighboring Sweida were an attempt to relieve pressure “on militant remnants facing their inevitable end in the western Daraa countryside.”