US accuses Syria of mass executions and burning bodies in crematorium

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration accused the Syrian government Monday of carrying out mass killings of thousands of prisoners and burning the bodies in a large crematorium outside the capital. It also stepped up criticism of Iran and Russia for supporting the Syrian government.

The allegation came as US President Donald Trump is weighed options in Syria, where the US attacked a government air base last month in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack on civilians.

But Trump hasn’t outlined a larger strategy for ending the Arab country’s civil war or ushering Syrian President Bashar Assad out of power. These questions were sure to arise in his meeting at the White House with the United Arab Emirates’ crown prince Monday, a day before Turkey’s president arrives.

The State Department said it believed that about 50 detainees a day are being hanged at Saydnaya military prison, about 45 minutes north of Damascus. Many of the bodies, it said, are then burned in the crematorium.

Acting assistant secretary for the US State Department Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Stuart Jones speaks at a news conference at the US Embassy in the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq, October 1, 2015. (AP/Khalid Mohammed)

“We believe that the building of a crematorium is an effort to cover up the extent of mass murders taking place,” said Stuart Jones, the top US diplomat for the Middle East, in accusing the Syrian government of sinking “to a new level of depravity.”

The department released commercial satellite photographs showing what it described as a building in the prison complex that was modified to support the crematorium. The photographs, taken over the course of several years, beginning in 2013, do not definitely prove the building is a crematorium, but they show construction consistent with such use.

In presenting the photographs, Jones called on Russia and Iran to press Assad’s government to establish a credible cease-fire with Syrian rebel groups and begin negotiations on a political settlement.

“We are appalled by the atrocities that have been carried out by the Syrian regime and these atrocities have been carried out seemingly with the unconditional support from Russia and Iran,” Jones said.

A satellite image of what the State Department described as a building in a prison complex in Syria that was modified to support a crematorium, April 18, 2017. (State Department/DigitalGlobe via AP)

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had been “firm and clear” in a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last week that “Russia holds tremendous influence over Bashar al-Assad.”

A main point of that meeting “was telling Russia to use its power to rein in the regime,” she said. “Simply put, the killing, the devastation has gone on for far too long in Syria.”

The war has killed as many as 400,000 people since 2011. It has contributed to Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II and enabled the Islamic State group to emerge as a global terrorism threat.

Trump travels to the Middle East later this week on his first official foreign trip.

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