Tribune Washington Bureau
Posted with permission from Tribune Content Agency

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration accused Syria's government on Monday of hanging hundreds of political opponents and other prisoners and burning their bodies at a military prison near Damascus, part of what the State Department called an egregious pattern of atrocities by Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The State Department said the Syrian authorities may be using a large crematorium at the prison to destroy evidence of mass killings that could be used in any future war crimes prosecution.

Stuart Jones, acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, told reporters that about 50 detainees are being hanged each day at the Saydnaya military prison, about 20 miles from Damascus, and that newly declassified satellite photos appear to show a building modified to house a crematorium.

Cremating the bodies represents "an effort to cover up the extent of the mass murders," Jones said.

The Syrian government, supported by Russia and Iran, has "sunk to a new level of depravity," Jones said.

An estimated 5,000 to 13,000 prisoners were killed at the prison from March 2011, when the country's multisided civil war began, to December 2015, according to a report issued in February by Amnesty International, the human rights organization.

Once or twice a week, the Syrian government would "quietly slaughter" up to 50 prisoners at a time in mass hangings at the prison. It said the bodies were buried in mass graves in secret locations outside the capital.

Nicolette Waldman, who wrote the 48-page report after a yearlong investigation, said the number of people killed may be much higher. More than 400,000 people have been killed and millions displaced in the Syrian war, according to United Nations estimates.

"The last testimony for this report was in December 2015, but there is no reason to think the executions have stopped" at the prison, Waldman said in a phone interview in February.

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(Wilkinson reported from Washington and Bulos from Beirut.)