In what has become the chilling calling card of Islamic State, reports emerged Sunday that the extremist group had kidnapped hundreds of civilians during fighting in eastern Syria.
The official Syrian Arab News Agency, citing residents, had reported Saturday that Islamic State militants had carried out "a horrific massacre" in Bughayliyah village, just outside the city of Dair Alzour. An estimated 300 civilians, including old people, women and children, were reported killed.
A pro-opposition monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, put the death toll much lower -- about 85 civilians and 50 pro-government fighters. On Sunday, however, it reported that Islamic State had kidnapped about 400 civilians and had taken them to Madaan, midway between Dair Alzour and Islamic State's de facto capital, Raqqah.
"Those who were kidnapped are the families of loyalist fighters, and some of them were merchants bringing goods to the area," said Rami Abdul Rahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory group, who uses a pseudonym for security reasons.
Islamic State fighters often stage massacres after claiming victory over new territory. In May, after the group seized control of the desert city of Palmyra, it broadcast a grisly video depicting teenagers summarily executing government fighters with point-blank shots to the head in the town's ancient theater.
The group also has a history of kidnapping civilians and enslaving them or subjecting women to forced marriages.
Abdul Rahman stressed that those taken were Sunni Muslims, the same sect as Islamic State as well as the majority of the opposition arrayed against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
There was no confirmation of the kidnappings by the government, but a local journalist contacted via social media Sunday, who asked to remain unidentified for his safety, corroborated the information.
"Daesh came in and captured some of the fighters of the regime and the National Defense Forces, and executed some of them in the squares," he said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
The National Defense Forces are a national paramilitary entity akin to the auxiliary guard.
"They also transferred some of the families in Al-Bughayliyah to areas away from the front line," he added.
He said that civilians from government-held areas are often taken by Islamic State for investigation and, if found innocent of collaborating with the state security services, submit to a religious course before being released.
There was no independent confirmation of the information.
As the last bastion of government control in the province of the same name, Dair Alzour city has been a coveted target for Islamic State. The militants have often launched suicide attacks on various parts of the city and have laid siege to its remaining inhabitants since the Palmyra takeover, cutting off supply lines into the area.
The city, which had a population of about 200,000, is now home to an estimated 100,000. Residents received much-needed humanitarian supplies Friday in a widely publicized airdrop organized by Syrian and Russian military units.
Bulos is a special correspondent.