ISIS leaves Syria Druze reeling from heaviest losses of war
By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo and AFP
The death toll in co-ordinated "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) attacks in Syria's Sweida neared 250 on Thursday (July 26th), the Druze-majority province's heaviest loss of life of the seven-year 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 after four suicide bombers struck the city, while other ISIS 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.
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 extremists died carrying out the assault.
Fierce fighting continues
Following the attacks, ISIS elements infiltrated the towns and villages to occupy them, opening fire indiscriminately at civilians, Sweida resident and political activist Nizar Abu Ali told Diyaruna.
Armed popular committees comprising local residents sprung to action to confront ISIS’s elements, he said, adding that the group has been successfully expelled from some towns.
"Fierce fighting continues unabated in some of the towns in which ISIS’s elements took fortified positions, particularly in eastern rural areas of the province," he said.
Dozens of local youth volunteered to back the fighters confronting ISIS who have come from various areas of Sweida and Horan, said Abu Ali.
"Four ISIS suicide bombers who tried to infiltrate the city of Sweida were arrested at checkpoints set up by volunteers," he said.
One of the bombers was trying to enter Sweida's National Hospital, he added.
The towns that witnessed the fiercest fighting include al-Matouna, Douma, Tayma, Tal al-Baseer, Rami and Arajeh, in addition to the villages al-Shebki, al-Shureihi and Tarba.
The death toll is likely to increase due to the continued fighting and "the brutality with which ISIS elements are treating the residents of the towns they infiltrated", Abu Ali said.
"The militants are opening fire on civilians, women and children, killing them in mass executions," said Abu Ali.
Zeina, a resident of the tiny village of al-Matouna, said her family woke up to the sound of gunfire and grenade blasts at around 5:30 a.m. 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.