The bodies of at least 79 men and teenage boys, each with a single bullet hole to the head, were found in a river in Aleppo yesterday (Tuesday) in the biggest mass murder of the country's two-year civil war.
Some had been killed so recently that blood still flowed from their wounds. Other bodies had clearly lain in the stagnant water for days, bloated and with the skin disintegrating and grey.
The hands of each victim had been tied roughly with string or wire. Each had a circular wound in their forehead or eye. The large exit wounds at the backs of their heads suggested they had been shot at close range.
Family members arrived in their hundreds to identify missing sons, saying many had disappeared after crossing from rebel-held territory in Aleppo into regime areas on the other side of the river. It was impossible to be certain who was responsible for their deaths. Of those identified, at least half the total by nightfall, were from rebel-held districts, and local people blamed government checkpoints on the other side of the river.
"These are my sons," said Abu Mohammed, 73, as he shuffled towards the corpses laid out in rows in a schoolyard. A relation held his arm as he stared at the exposed faces of the victims.
His legs buckled as he recognised two young men, no older than 30, as his sons. They had travelled to central Aleppo, which is in the hands of Bashar al-Assad's government, 20 days before. "They thought they had nothing to fear from the government, so they went to renew their identity cards. But they didn't come back."
The toll was at least 79, according to The Daily Telegraph's count, the worst for any single group of victims who have been summarily executed in Syria. There have been larger death tolls in the conflict, but in assaults on villages, such as that of Houla, near Homs, last June.
Most of the dead were young men, some dressed in military fatigues, and others in civilian clothes. Two boys, no older than 11 and 15, were among them.
They were pulled from a narrow, filthy strip of the Oweq River at a point where it edges on to Aleppo's rebel-held district of Bustan al-Qasr. The regime front line was visible a few hundred yards away on the other side of the water. "We saw the first bodies at 8am in the morning, and we started to take them away," said one resident, who did not want to be named.
During the past month, the river has becoming a dumping ground for corpses, residents said. Two bodies were pulled out last week. Unclaimed and without identity cards, the bloated corpses were left in the flower patch in front of one of the rebel hospitals in case a passer-by should recognise them.
Yesterday's discovery was on a different scale. Mamnoud Hassoun, 26, a rebel fighter, said there were still at least 30 bodies floating further upstream, but it had become too dangerous to reach them: "It is hard to get the bodies because they are in the view of snipers," he said. "When the snipers saw there were Free Syrian Army pulling out the bodies they started shooting."
Pick-up trucks used as hearses lined the road outside the school. Men surrounded one, crying and firing Kalashnikovs. Residents said that there had been a government attempt to reclaim Bustan al-Qasr the day before, and that the rebels had killed several soldiers.
Regime sources blamed the rebels for the deaths, saying those killed had been "abducted by terrorists".