* Reports of more than 200 dead in Daraya
* State news agency says army cleansed town of terrorists
* Vice-president, rumoured defected, appears in Damascus
* Syria to dominate summit hosted in Tehran
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
AMMAN, Aug 26 (Reuters) - Syrian opposition activists accused President Bashar al-Assad's army on Sunday of massacring scores of people in a town close to the capital that it recently recaptured from rebels.
More than 200 bodies, some of them women and children, were found in houses and basements around Daraya, according to activists who said most had been killed "execution-style" by troops during house-to-house raids.
Due to restrictions on non-state media in Syria, it was impossible to independently verify the accounts.
"Assad's army has committed a massacre in Daraya," said Abu Kinan, an activist in the town, using an alias to protect himself from reprisals.
The killings in Daraya, a working class Sunni Muslim town that sustained three days of heavy bombardment before being overrun by the army on Friday, raised the daily death toll to 440 people on Saturday, one of the highest since the uprising started in March last year, the Local Coordination Committees, an activist network, said.
Video footage from activists showed numerous bodies of young men side-by-side at the Abu Suleiman al-Darani mosque in Daraya, many with what looked like gunshot wounds to the head and chest.
"A massacre," said the voice of the man who appeared to be taking the footage. "You are seeing the revenge of Assad's forces ... more than 150 bodies on the floor of this mosque."
The official state news agency said: "Our heroic armed forces cleansed Daraya from remnants of armed terrorist groups who committed crimes against the sons of the town and scared them and sabotaged and destroyed public and private property."
U.N. investigators said in a report this month that both sides in the conflict had performed summary executions - a war crime - but that Assad's troops and militia loyal to the president had committed many more offences than the rebels.
The report said forces loyal to Assad committed a massacre of more than 100 civilians in the town of Houla in May that the government blamed on Islamist "terrorists".
The United Nations estimates that more than 18,000 people have been killed in the conflict that pits a mainly Sunni opposition against a ruling system dominated by the Assad family - members of the Alawite faith, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam - for the last four decades.
VICE-PRESIDENT NOT DEFECTED
As well as the bloodshed in Damascus and surrounding cities, many were killed in Syria's biggest city Aleppo where rebel-held areas came under heavy bombardment.
State television reported clashes between the army and "terrorists" in a central neighbourhood of Aleppo next to the historic Old City and less than 1 km (1,000 yards) away from its ancient citadel.
The Free Hauran Assembly activists' group said a brigadier named Mohammad Hassan al-Haj had defected to Jordan, the latest Sunni officer to desert.
But earlier reports that Vice-President Farouq al-Sharaa had defected were shown to be wrong when he appeared in public for the first time in weeks, meeting Iranian officials, state news agency SANA reported.
Iran, the Middle East's main Shi'ite power which is a close ally of Assad, accuses its adversaries in the West and the Arab world of fuelling the conflict by backing the opposition.
"Fortunately today important countries such as Russia, China and the Islamic Republic of Iran ... are completely opposed to imposed policies on Syria and foreign interference," said Alaeddin Boroujerdi, a senior member of Iran's parliament visiting Damascus, Fars news agency reported.
Tehran, defying efforts by the West to isolate it over its nuclear activities opened a summit of developing nations on Sunday where Syria may prove a divisive topic.
The head of the Arab League said both sides of the conflict should stop fighting and start talking.
"Those who wait to achieve a victory in the ongoing conflict in Syria are putting Syria in a big war," Nabil Elaraby told a news conference in Cairo.
"We hope that the sound of reason prevails and that both sides accept mediation efforts."
With Russia leading resistance to Western and Arab pressure for action against Assad, the United Nations Security Council remains deadlocked.
A new U.N. envoy, Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, has said he is "humbled and scared" at the task of seeking a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis.
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Despite major defections and a July 18. explosion in Damascus that killed four top generals, including President Bashar Assad's brother-in-law, the regime's inner circle is still powerful and united against the opposition. Assad's inner circle includes his younger brother, Maher, who commands the forces in charge of protecting the capital. It also includes the heads of the four intelligence agencies playing a major role in the crackdown. Although regime forces lost parts of the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest, government troops still control most cities, while the opposition dominates large parts of the countryside. <em>Caption: This June 13, 2000, file photo shows Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, his brother Maher, center, and brother-in-law Major General Assef Shawkat, left. (AP Photo, File)</em>
Free Syrian Army
The main rebel fighting force for more than a year, the Free Syrian Army includes lightly-armed volunteer militiamen and defectors from Assad's military. Its overall strength and structure is unclear, but tens of thousands are believed be loyal to the group. The rebels have control over some northern areas, allowing movement of fighters and supplies from Turkey and Lebanon. Anti-Assad forces have failed to maintain any strategic footholds in big cities, being driven back from key neighborhoods in Homs earlier this year and now apparently losing ground in the largest urban center, Aleppo. The battles also suggest only weak direction from central commanders - including Turkey-based Free Syrian Army leader Riad al-Asaad. <em>Caption: In this citizen journalism image provided by Shaam News Network SNN, taken on Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012, Free Syrian Army soldiers pose for a photograph, in Sarmada, Idlib province, northern Syria. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)</em>
Syrian National Council
Based in Istanbul, the SNC has emerged as the main political opposition to Assad and has pushed for international recognition as the legitimate representative of the uprising, despite rifts with other Syrian factions. The group also has been hit by internal feuds that have led some senior members to quit. The current leader, Abdelbaset Sieda, is a Swedish-based activist for Syria's minority Kurdish community. The SNC has gained support from many countries in the West and Arab world, but it has not galvanized international backing, and critics complain its senior leadership is made up mostly of exiles out of touch with their homeland. <em>Caption: The members of the Syrian National Council and its head Abdulbaset Sieda, center, arrive for a meeting with Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, July 23, 2012.(AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)</em>
The National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change
A rival to the SNC, the National Coordination Committee is led by opposition figures inside Syria, many of them former political prisoners. SNC members accuse the group of being far too lenient and willing to engage in dialogue with the regime. In turn, the National Coordination Committee accuses the SNC of being a front for Western powers and willing to open the door to the Muslim Brotherhood and other conservative Islamist factions. <em>Caption: Member of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, Morhaf Mickael speaks during a meeting of Syrian opposition parties in Brussels on Sunday, June 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)</em>
On Assad's side are traditional Shiite allies Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah. <em>Caption: In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili, meets with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus, Syria, Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012. (AP Photo/SANA)</em>
The regime also has important political cover from Russia and China, which have used their Security Council vetoes to prevent U.N. sanctions on Syria. <em>Caption: In this Jan. 25, 2005 file photo, Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a signing ceremony in the Kremlin, Moscow. (AP Photo/Sergei Chirikov)</em>
The rebels have built an array of regional support that includes the wealthy Gulf states - led by Iran rival Saudi Arabia - and neighboring Turkey, which offers key supply routes. The West also backs the rebel forces, but has so far opposed mobilizing international military support similar to the NATO-led airstrikes that helped topple Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Libya. <em>Caption: From left, Bahrain's Foreign Minister, Sheik Khalid bin AhmedI bin Mohammed al-Khalifa, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu and United Arab Emirates' Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan seenduring a group photo during the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Foreign ministers meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2012 (AP Photo)</em>
Syria has drawn foreign fighters just as other recent conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan. No credible count on them exists, but anecdotal evidence suggests foreigners are coming to fight Assad. Rebel commanders downplay the presence of foreign fighters, saying their cause is a purely Syrian uprising. Mohammed Idilbi, a Syrian activist based in Turkey, says foreign ranks include Libyans, Yemenis, Tunisians and Lebanese. On Saturday, Syria's official SANA news agency claimed four Libyans were among rebels killed in Aleppo. <em>Caption: In this Sept. 18, 2011 file photo, former rebel fighters celebrate as smoke rises from Bani Walid, Libya, at the northern gate of the town. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini, File)</em>
U.S. officials and others worry that Syria could become a new foothold for insurgents inspired by al-Qaida. Assessing the degree of radical Islamic ideology in the civil war is impossible, but at least one group, the al-Nusra Front, has emerged and declared allegiance to the Free Syrian Army. Al-Nusra, or Victory, has claimed responsibility for several high profile attacks, including a double suicide bombing in March that killed 27 people in Damascus and the execution-style killing of a Syrian television presenter who was abducted in July. On Friday, U.S. intelligence officials said al-Qaida has advanced beyond isolated pockets in Syria and now is building a network of well-organized cells that could include several hundred militants. <em>Caption: This photo shows Al-Qaida's new leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a still image from a web posting by al-Qaida's media arm, as-Sahab, Wednesday July 27, 2011. Al-Qaida's new leader has lauded protesters in Syria for seeking to topple the regime of President Bashar Assad. (AP Photo/IntelCenter) </em>