Middle East

Syrian victims in video begin to be identified

This still image taken from an undated video published on the Internet by the Islamic State group militants and made available, Sunday, Nov. 16, 2014, purports to show extremists marching Syrian soldiers before beheading them. (AP Photo)

BEIRUT: Syrian government media Monday acknowledged the slaying of more than a dozen men said to be military personnel in a video released by extremist group ISIS, one day after the gruesome footage provoked international outrage.

The video, which also announces the execution of a U.S aid worker, Abdul-Rahman Kassig, generated condemnation by Western officials in the hours after it circulated Sunday.

Monday’s issue of the pro-regime newspaper Al-Watan mentioned the slayings, in an item whose headline condemned “Western silence” over the murders.

But state news agency SANA remained silent about the video until late Monday, when it relayed news coverage from Europe, focusing on the hunt for several men believed to be Western nationals who appear in the video. SANA did not refer to the Syrian victims as military personnel, instead calling them “hostages.”

Internet news outlets and social media, meanwhile, have been busy identifying the Syrian victims.

A Facebook page covering news of the village of Safarqieh in Latakia, near the hometown of President Bashar Assad, said its native son Col. Aktham Khatib was one of those butchered in the video. 

It said Khatib was stationed at Division 17 in Raqqa province, which was overrun by ISIS militants this summer. Several hundred military personnel were killed in the attack, rounded up and executed shortly thereafter, or fled – but the fate of an unspecified number of them had remained unknown.

The administrator of a loyalist Facebook page dedicated to the memory of the Division 17 personnel, and critical of the regime’s military performance amid the ISIS gains, was himself arrested by the authorities weeks later.

Other pro-regime social media forums and Internet news outlets circulated the names of four other men in the video: Abdo Tohme and Ghaith Mahanna from Homs province, and Issa Iskandar and Wissam Attar from Hama province.

Sunday’s video coincided with a separate set of executions by ISIS, with a set of photographs circulating and purporting to show the victims.

Thirteen men were murdered for allegedly forming “sleeper cells” working for the authorities, according to claims accompanying the photos on pro-jihadi media networks.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime group of activists based in Britain, said the men were executed in Tabqa, in the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa province, while the beheading of the military personnel is believed to have taken place in neighboring Aleppo.

In yet another incident, the Observatory Monday said that ISIS militants executed two men and put their bodies on public display in the city of Deir al-Zor. They were killed for allegedly collaborating with the regime, the Observatory said.

All told, ISIS has executed nearly 1,500 people in Syria in the five months since it declared the establishment of a “caliphate” in late June, the Observatory’s director Rami Abdel-Rahman, told AFP.

“Of the total number of people beheaded or shot dead in mass killings by ISIS, 879 have been civilians, some 700 of them members of the Sheaitat tribe.”

The tribe, from the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, rose up against the jihadi group in mid-2014.

Another 63 of the dead were members of other rebel groups or the rival jihadi Nusra Front, which has fought ISIS in the north and east, Abdel Rahman said. “Another 483 were regime soldiers, while four others were ISIS members” accused of corruption or other alleged offenses. 

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 18, 2014, on page 8.

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