Activists say Assad's forces kill 85 near Damascus

Clashes worst in area since start of war; rebels threaten to involve Hezbollah; 85 executed, including 28 shot in makeshift hospital.

Syria fighting 370 (photo credit: Goran Tomasevic / Reuters)
Syria fighting 370
(photo credit: Goran Tomasevic / Reuters)
AMMAN, April 21 (Reuters) - Syrian forces and militiamen loyal to President Bashar Assad killed at least 85 people when they stormed a Damascus suburb after five days of fighting, opposition activists in the area said on Sunday.
There was no immediate confirmation of the activists' account of what they described as a "massacre", including of women and children, at Jdeidet Fadel. Syrian authorities have banned most independent media since the uprising began in 2011.
Syria's Sana state news agency said the military "inflicted big losses on terrorists in Jdeidet Fadel and destroyed weapons and ammunition and killed and wounded members of the terrorist groups".
Jamal Golani, a member of the Revolution Leadership Council opposition group, said the number of dead may be higher than 250, mostly shot at close range, but the presence of army patrols made documenting all of them difficult.
"Jdeidet Fadel was militarily a lost cause from day one because it was surrounded by the army from every direction. There are almost no wounded because they were shot on the spot," he said.
The killings happened over several days when pro-Assad forces stormed an area where there were up to 270 rebels, Golani said, adding that he had counted 98 bodies in the streets and 86 people who he said had been summarily executed in makeshift clinics where they were lying wounded.
The working class district, part of Sunni Muslim towns surrounding the capital that have been at the forefront of the uprising against Assad, is situated near hilltop bases for elite loyalist forces, who mostly belong to Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that has dominated the country since the 1960s.
Abu Ahmad al-Rabi', an activist in the adjacent district of Jdeidet Artouz, said: "We documented 85 summarily executed, including 28 shot in a makeshift hospital after Assad's forces entered Jdeidet Fadel. We fear that the victims of the massacre are much higher."
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition monitoring group operating from London, said it documented 80 names of people killed, including three children, six women and 18 rebel fighters.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights said the International Committee for the Red Cross should be allowed to evacuate civilians from the district after credible reports of "extrajudicial killings and summary executions inside homes and tens of cases of sexual violence".
Syrian state television showed troops in a pickup truck patrolling the dusty town and several bodies of dead men which a commander described as "terrorists" in front of a building that appears to have been wrecked by gunfire.
Video footage taken by activists showed three bodies of young men lying next to each other and apparently hit by bullets, and bodies in what they described as a makeshift clinic, two of which hit in the face.
In a pattern seen in other towns and neighborhoods overrun by Assad's forces, activists said shops in Jdeidet Fadel were looted and torched.
Meanwhile, Syrian troops and Lebanese Shi'ite militias attacked rebel-held areas on the two countries' border on Sunday, in the heaviest clashes of Syria's civil war in the strategic region, Lebanese and Syrian sources said.
At least two towns held by Sunni Islamist rebels in the Qusair region near the Orontes River were overrun after sectarian clashes escalated early last week, threatening to bring in Iranian-backed Hezbollah openly into the battle, the sources said.
On Saturday, in the first attack well inside Lebanese territory, rockets hit the town of Hermel, a Hezbollah stronghold in the Bekaa Valley, causing damage but no casualties. A Hezbollah fighter was killed in the Shi'ite border town of Zita, inside Syria, residents said.
Six rebels were killed in clashes in the Syrian city of Qusair on Sunday and one woman was killed in Syrian air strikes in the region, opposition campaigners said.
The official Syrian state news agency Sana said "the brave Syrian army spread its control of (the town of) Saqraja after it destroyed the last remnants of the terrorists."
The border area, known for decades for its smuggling, is an important supply route for rebels fighting President Bashar Assad's forces in the central city of Homs, a main front in the war.
The conflict started two years ago with peaceful demonstrations against four decades of rule by the Assad family, who belong to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
At least 70,000 people have been killed in the civil war, which is increasingly pitting majority Sunnis against the minority Alawites, who have controlled Syria since the 1960s.
The Syrian war has worsened Lebanon's own sectarian tensions, with wounds from a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990 far from healed. Syrian maintained a 29-year military presence in Lebanon until it was forced to withdraw its troops under international pressure in 2005.
Assad, who has lost control of large parts of Syria, has been on the offensive in the center and north of the country in the last few weeks.
In the border region, Syrian army troops and Shi'ite militias entered the towns of Saqraja, which controls the approaches to the main rebel-held town of Qusair, and Radwaniya, while intense fighting was reported in the nearby village of Burhaniya, the sources said.
A joint statement by the rebel command in Qusair and the al-Qaida linked al-Nusra front, broadcast on the opposition Orient Television, said the rebel brigades would "move the battle into Lebanon" if the Hezbollah-backed offensive continued.
The statement said rebels would use tanks and missiles to hit the mostly Shi'ite Lebanese city of Baalbek, home to famed ruins of a Roman temple, and move fighters into Lebanese territory to attack Hezbollah there.
Speaking from Qusair, activist Hadi Abdallah said Hezbollah and its militia allies were pushing from the Bekaa valley toward Qusair, while the Syrian army was moving south from Homs in a pincer movement aimed at ending the rebel presence along the border.
"In the last few days there have been attacks by the Hezbollah forces on new villages around Qusair," he said, adding that Hezbollah and its allies had already taken eight villages and towns along the border inside Syria.
"This is part of a bigger strategy to control Homs and link it with the Bekaa and the coast," he said, referring to Alawite regions near the Mediterranean where the opposition suspects Assad will rebase and form an Alawite enclave if his position in Damascus becomes untenable.
"We do not want to reach a stage where the rebels would have to hit Lebanese territory at random," Abdallah said, adding that the opposition would hold their fire if the attacks on Qusair and the surrounding towns was called off.