Six days of fighting in a Damascus suburb has killed more than a hundred people and possibly many more, activists have said, in what the government also acknowledged may be a dramatic spike in the rising death toll in Syria.
The reports came as President Bashar Assad's forces pressed on with a major offensive against rebels closing in on parts of the Syrian capital, and while government troops moved to encircle the contested town of Qusair, near the Lebanese border.
The precise number of those killed in the latest fighting in the Jdaidet Artouz and Jdaidet al-Fadel districts could not be immediately confirmed. The two adjacent neighbourhoods are around 10 miles south-west of Damascus.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the death toll, mostly due to shelling, could be as high as 250. Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory, said the group has documented 101 names of those killed, including three children, 10 women and 88 men, but he fears a much higher toll. The dead included 24 rebels, he added.
The Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), another activist group, put the death toll at 483. It said most of the victims were killed in Jdaidet Artouz. State-run news agency SANA reported Syrian troops had "inflicted heavy losses" on the rebels in the suburbs.
A government official in Damascus told The Associated Press that rebels were behind the "massacre" in Jdaidet al-Fadel, saying they sought to blame government forces who entered the area after the killings occurred.
"The army discovered the massacre after entering the area," the official said. The corpses were already decomposed, he added.
Jdaidet al-Fadel is mostly inhabited by Syrians who fled the Golan Heights after the area was captured by Israel in 1967. Jdaidet Artouz has a large Christian and Druse population.
Reports of death tolls in Syria's civil war often conflict, especially in areas that are difficult to access because of the fighting. The government also bars many foreign journalists from covering the conflict. Both activist groups, the Observatory and the LCC, rely on a network of activists on the ground in different parts of Syria. In August, activists said days of shelling and a killing spree by government troops left 300 to 600 dead in the Damascus suburb of Daraya, just north of Jdaidet al-Fadel.
The main opposition group, the Cairo-based Syrian National Coalition described the killings as "the latest heinous crime committed by the Assad regime". It added in a statement that "the deafening silence of the international community over these crimes against humanity is shameful".