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Syrian government denies mass grave found near Daraa

From Salma Abdelaziz, CNN
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Mass grave found in Syria?
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Farmer is said to have smelled stench and to have found hand protruding from the earth
  • One of the diggers said around 20 bodies had been found
  • Government: Reports of the grave are part of a "campaign of incitement and slandering"
  • Farmer: Residents unearthed bodies including those of a young child and a woman

(CNN) -- The Syrian government is denying claims that a mass grave was found near the embattled city of Daraa, a focal point in the nationwide wave of anti-government rage.

The country's Interior Ministry said the news was untrue and is part of a "campaign of incitement and slandering," Syrian state TV reported Tuesday.

Multiple bodies -- as many as 20 by one account -- were found early Monday in a shallow, unmarked grave near Daraa, an opposition leader told CNN.

A local farmer told CNN that another farmer was heading toward his grove of olive trees on the outskirts of Daraa when he smelled the stench of bodies. The farmer searched the field and found a human hand protruding from the earth.

The farmer sought help from local residents and, working with a backhoe, the group unearthed seven bodies, five recognized as being from one family. Among the bodies were those of a young child and woman, the farmer said.

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Within an hour of the discovery, the farmer said, Syrian army and security forces took control of the site, confiscating cell phones of witnesses.

Using the backhoe, the security forces continued digging and removing corpses, witnesses said.

"One of the diggers later told the community that around 20 bodies had been found at the site," Abdullah Abazeed, a prominent leader of the uprising in Daraa, told CNN.

CNN has not been granted access into Syria and is unable to independently verify witness accounts or independently confirm the body count.

Two amateur videos have surfaced on social media sites showing masked workers digging up deteriorating corpses and placing them in black body bags. While the description of the site appears to match the images, CNN has been unable to confirm the authenticity of the video.

Abazeed said five of the bodies -- all male members of his extended family -- were returned to relatives and given an Islamic burial Monday afternoon. Abazeed said he believed his family was targeted because of his role in opposing the government.

"The security forces have been raiding the house of Abazeed searching for me," he said. "They may have killed them when they found out they were members of my family."

Not all the bodies were immediately identifiable, activists said.

"The authorities sent the remaining bodies to the morgue for identification," said Dr. Ammar Qurabi, chairman of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria. "Some of the bodies were bloated, and others had been partially eaten by animals, making it difficult to ascertain the identity of the victims."

The Syrian government has been clamping down on street demonstrations for more than two months in Daraa and other cities, and deadly clashes have erupted during anti-government protests.

Demonstrators, emboldened by the tough crackdown and the mass anti-government rallies in other Arab nations this year, are calling for the end of the Bashar al-Assad regime and seeking greater political freedom.

CNN's Yousuf Basil and Nada Husseini contributed to this report.

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