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Army push leaves Damascus suburb a 'ghost town,' opposition says

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 8:23 PM EDT, Sun August 26, 2012
In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war: In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war:
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Troops "would shoot at any living thing on street," opposition activist says
  • Pro-government television shows Daraya residents thanking soldiers
  • More than 200 people were reported killed; bloodied corpses were laid out in a mosque

(CNN) -- Syrian government troops have left the Damascus suburb of Daraya a "ghost town," an opposition activist said Sunday as scores of bodies were placed in mass graves.

State-run and government-friendly television networks aired glowing descriptions of Daraya's recapture by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after a weeklong siege, blaming the deaths of more than 200 civilians there on "terrorists" driven out by the army. But opposition activists said the dead were victims of a rampage by government troops after the rebel Free Syrian Army withdrew from the city late Friday.

Opposition activists posted video of mass burials and reported dozens more bodies were found Sunday.

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"The regime army started picking up young men from the streets, from their homes, and conduct summary executions," an opposition member who goes by the name "Abu Kanan" told CNN from inside the city.

In one incident, he said, a woman shouted "God is greater" as soldiers raided her house: "The soldiers arrested her with five men from her family and executed them." And the seriously wounded "are considered dead," he said.

"There are no doctors, no medicine. The humanitarian situation is very bad. There is a lack of food items, no electricity, no phones," he said. "This raid was so savage and brutal. We haven't seen anything this before."

The remains of the dead were gathered in a mosque to be identified, and rebel fighters posted video of dozens of bloodied corpses online. Government troops pulled back to the outskirts on Sunday evening, Abu Kanan said.

"The city now is a ghost town," he said.

Syrian television aired a very different account, showing residents who thanked government troops for coming to their rescue as bodies still sprawled in the streets.

"Thanks to the military who is protecting us," one man told the pro-government network Al-Dounia. "Thank you for coming."

When a reporter for the network asked whether the man was coerced into making that statement, he said, "No, we came here on our own to say this."

The Al-Dounia reporter told viewers, "Every time we get into a region where the terrorists were present, we discover what these terrorists know best -- killings, massacres and all in the name of freedom." But some of those she interviewed weren't so definitive about who was responsible.

One elderly woman thanked government troops who carried her away on a stretcher after being wounded, but she said she wasn't sure who shot her.

"I don't know. I don't know where my husband is. He works for state security," she told Al-Dounia.

Daraya was the scene of some of the first peaceful protests that were attacked by security forces in al-Assad's 17-month-old clampdown on opposition -- a struggle that has become a civil war. The United Nations has estimated the death toll at more than 18,000, while opposition forces say more than 21,000 have died.

CNN cannot independently verify reports of death tolls, as the Syrian regime has severely limited access by international journalists. A U.N. monitoring mission, initially dispatched to observe a cease-fire that never took root, ended last week.

Syrian troops launched their push against rebel fighters in Daraya on August 20, bombarding the city for five days before the Free Syrian Army pulled out late Friday, an opposition activist, identified only as "Osama," told CNN.

"There was an intense battle between regime forces and groups of FSA, so the regime treated all people of Daraya as enemies," he said. "They would shoot at any living thing on the street."

Osama said he was outside Daraya but was getting accounts from relatives and other activists inside. He said "not a single street" survived the five days of shelling unscathed, with government buildings, police stations and the city's main hospital hit during the bombardment.

After the rebel withdrawal, government troops moved into the city, searching and looting homes, sweeping the streets and killing those who tried to escape, he said.

"When the shelling stopped, the families started getting out of their shelters and tried to run away and flee the city using the break from the shelling," he said. "But they were surprised with the army on the streets, who started killing them. In one instance, at a military checkpoint, they get the people out of the cars, got them in front of a wall and shot them. This happened at the Turab Square, the main square in the city."

Other people were summarily shot by government troops at checkpoints around town, he said.

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CNN's Yousuf Basil and Saad Abedine contributed to this report.

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