AMMAN (Reuters) - Syria’s government-held city of Sweida on Thursday buried dozens of its inhabitants who were killed a day before in coordinated assaults by Islamic State militants who overran villages and staged multiple suicide attacks inside the city, residents and witnesses said.
They said the attacks that killed over two hundred people, the worst against the majority Druze inhabited city in southwestern Syria that escaped violence in over seven-year of conflict, sent shockwaves across the Druze community spread in Lebanon, Syria and Israel.
Coffins of victims draped in Syrian and Druze flags had been brought from the main city hospital as thousands thronged to pay homage to the victims as the city closed down in mourning.
Anger over President Bashar al Assad’s authorities perceived failure to avert the dawn attacks pushed residents to prevent the governor of the province, Amer al Ashi, and representatives of the government from attending the funeral.
Many residents blamed the authorities of negligence while others questioned how dozens of militants could descend from areas declared free of militants and storm seven villages northeast of Sweida city and create mayhem in the city.
“The governor was kicked out with people blaming the authorities for failing to act,” said one resident Alaa Muqaled contacted by phone.
Many local vigilante groups set up checkpoints across the city as fears persisted of renewed attacks, another resident contacted by phone said.
The attack took place as government forces backed by intensive Russian aerial attacks were battling the militants in an enclave to the west near the Golan frontier and the border with Jordan.
Fueling the anger was a perceived absence of any significant army role when local Druze youths who rushed to protect civilians in trapped villages confronted the militants, according to two residents.
State media said the army had intervened and battled the militants and waged aerial strikes on fleeing militants.
Many community leaders and top Druze religious leaders’ refusal to sanction enlistment in the army forces had long caused strains with the Damascus authorities.
A Russian military delegation that had recently visited Sweida and asked community leaders to sanction local militias enrollment in a Russian-backed offensive in southwestern Syria to regain rebel held territory had met refusal, a Druze official familiar with the matter said.
Sweida’s Druze are neighbors to mainly Sunni Deraa province and have long resisted being drawn into the Syrian conflict that pits mainly Sunni rebels opposed to Assad’ rule.
A handful of suicide bombers on motor-bikes went on a rampage reminiscent of some of the group’s bloodiest attacks during the height of their power when large swathes of Iraq and Syria was under their control.
One suicide bomber blew himself in a vegetable market as vendors were arriving to sell their produce while others were killed before they could detonate their bombs on a hospital in attacks that has sent shockwaves across the community.
Residents cite horror stories of families massacred by the ultra-hardline Sunni fundamentalists with documented names of at least twenty women and children kidnapped by the militants and others still unaccounted for.
Witnesses said the militants had quietly at dawn knocked at doors of homes where they knew names of its occupants in what local villagers suspect was help from local Bedouin.
Several bodies of civilians were found shot some of the villages that the militants had overrun, they said.
Fueling tensions were reports the ultra-hardline jihadists who attacked had come to the Lajat area north of Sweida only a few months ago after they were allowed them to go there under a surrender deal to evacuate their south Damascus pockets.
Some Bedouin also want revenge for the alleged role Druze militias played in looting their villages in Lajat after they were recently taken in an army offensive to regain rebel held southern Syria.
Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi