BEIRUT (AP) — Mourners in southern Syria attended mass funerals Thursday for least 216 people killed in coordinated attacks by Islamic State fighters on a usually peaceful city and surrounding countryside. In the worst violence to hit the area since the country's conflict began, the militants also reportedly abducted at least 18 people, activists said.
The simultaneous attacks on the city of Sweida and surrounding villages a day earlier evoked the dark days of Islamic State violence that beleaguered Syria and neighboring Iraq during the group's heyday in 2014 and 2015. The abduction of civilians — activists say at least 14 were women — also were reminiscent of the group's tactic of taking hostages and using women as sex slaves.
A mass funeral was held in the city of Sweida on Thursday where men gathered in a hall to pay their respects to the dead. The devastated city was covered in black and shops were closed during the day to mourn the mass deaths.
Until Wednesday, Sweida, home to a predominantly Druze community, had largely been spared the violence that has hit Syria since 2011.
As Syria's civil war took increasingly sectarian undertones, pitting the largely Sunni opposition against the predominantly Alawite ruling class, the Druze minority stayed largely on the sidelines. Community leaders in Sweida took a firm position against participating in the war, resisting enrolling their sons in the army to avoid revenge attacks. The Druze, followers of an esoteric offshoot of Islam, have kept their own local militias.
The attacks Wednesday rocked the community, sparking criticism of the government for failing to protect the minority group that has for years been spared the violence.
Diana Semaan, a Syria researcher at the rights group Amnesty International, said there were signs that no government troops or security were present to provide protection for the community when it came under attack. Despite the community's push-back against getting involved in the war, the government has an "obligation" to protect them, Semaan said.
"We call on all sides to prioritize the protection of civilians. This didn't happen (in Sweida)," she said. "No government troops were in site."
The rare attacks in Sweida came amid a government offensive elsewhere in the country's south. Syrian forces are battling an IS-linked group near the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and near the border with Jordan. The group also has a small presence on the eastern edge of Sweida province, and in the desert in adjacent Homs province.
The militants launched their offensive with a spate of suicide bombing attacks in the city of Sweida in the early hours of Wednesday, including one at a busy vegetable market that left a scene of devastation. The militants also swarmed several villages in the province's northeast, and in some cases, shot residents as they slept, according to activist-operated Facebook page Sweida News Network.
Hassan Omar, a government health official in Sweida province, said Thursday that at least 150 people were wounded in the attacks and that some were in critical condition.
SNN also shared the names of at least 18 people abducted from one village, Shabki, most of them women. Their fate remained unknown and it was not immediately clear if they were missing or abducted.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported the abduction, saying dozens were taken from their homes but details of the operation remained unclear. The Observatory put the death toll at 246, including 111 members of local militias who took up arms to fight the advancing militants. At least 135 civilians were among the killed, the Observatory said.
SNN said many of the dead were shot in the head as they slept.
The Observatory also reported bodies found killed inside homes.
Since their offensive in June, Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces have retaken territories controlled by the rebels along the Golan Heights frontier and are now fighting militants in the country's southern tip.
On Thursday afternoon, Syrian troops entered the town of Quneitra in the Golan Heights and reached the frontier with the Israeli-occupied part of the region, where the Syrian Central Military Media said they raised the Syrian flag.
The SCMM posted photographs from inside the town, where homes have been left badly damaged since wars with Israel decades ago.
Syrian state TV also reported that troops captured the nearby town of Sahem al-Golan later in the day.
IS has been largely defeated in Syria and Iraq, but still has pockets of territory it controls in eastern and southern Syria.
The extremist group boasted that its "soldiers" killed more than 100 people in Sweida.
In a statement posted on the group's social media channels, it said its militants carried out surprise attacks on government and security centers, sparking clashes with Syrian troops and allied militias. It mentioned nothing about attacking civilians in villages.
The Islamic State group posted no death toll for its own men in Wednesday's fighting. The Observatory said at least 56 militants were killed.