Dozens killed in Damascus suburb bombings, ISIS claims responsibility
A series of blasts have struck the outskirts of Syria's capital, Damascus. At least 45 people were killed in the mainly Shiite neighbourhood, Syria's Interior Ministry reported. The Islamic State terrorist group has taken responsibility for the attacks.
According to the ministry, “more than 45 people were killed and dozens were injured.” Police say that the death toll is set to rise because “some of those injured are in a critical condition.”
More than 20 militia fighters, who have been fighting alongside government forces in Syria, are among those killed, TASS reported.
According to the television station of Lebanon's militant Shiite Hezbollah group, the attacks took place in the Sayeda Zeinab district, where Syria's major Shiite shrine is located.
A group of militants first detonated a car bomb near a bus stop near the Shiite shrine, Syrian state news agency SANA reported, quoting an Interior Ministry source. When people started gathering at the scene and tried to rescue the victims of the first blast, two suicide bombers blew themselves up nearby.
State television showed footage of burning buildings and wrecked cars in the heavily populated area in the south of the city.
The damage inflicted by the attack was compounded by a stall selling gas tanks near the explosion, an RT Arabic correspondent reported from the scene, citing eyewitnesses.
“I saw a man wearing a suicide vest standing next to a gas tanks seller. I then saw him detonating his bomb, and an explosion happened,” an eyewitness told RT.
IS claimed responsibility for the attacks, Reuters reported, citing Amaq news agency, which is affiliated with the terrorist group. Operations "hit the most important stronghold of Shiite militias in Damascus," it said.
"I've just returned from the scene of the blast, it was very devastating to see such a large-scale destruction [in the area] which was considered relatively safe since it was taken and secured by the Syrian army and its allies, mainly the Lebanese Hezbollah since 2013," journalist and political commentator Alaa Ibrahim told RT. "The attack is allegedly claimed by ISIL - I think it's linked with the fact that ISIL is losing grounds rapidly to the Syrian army, [and] this is ISIL's way in responding to the recent losses in Homs province in central Syria and mainly in Aleppo province in the north of the country," he said.
The Sunday bombings were carried out to interfere with the talks on the Syrian conflict in Geneva, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said.
“The attack near the Sayeda Zeinab shrine is clearly aimed to disrupt the attempts to start a political process,” Mogherini said in a statement, as quoted by Reuters.
Syria's UN Ambassador Bashar Jaafari has stated that Sunday's blasts in Damascus confirm a link between the opposition and terrorism, Reuters reported.
The Sayyida Zeinab mosque, which contains the grave of a granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammed, is revered as a pilgrimage site by Shiite Muslims. The site has been targeted before, including in February 2015, when a blast ripped through a bus carrying Lebanese Shiite pilgrims headed to Sayyida Zeinab, killing at least nine people, in an attack claimed by Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, AFP reported.
Also last year in February, two suicide attacks killed four people and wounded 13 at a checkpoint near the shrine.
The explosions took place as representatives of Syria's government and the opposition began gathering in Geneva for the first UN-mediated peace talks in two years. The United Nations says the challenge could be six months of talks, seeking a ceasefire and finding a political settlement to a war that has killed over 250,000 people and left over 1 million injured.
"Possibly one of the aims of this particular attack by the terrorists was to derail the talks, to prevent any progress achieved," Middle East expert Ali Rizk told RT. He added that "talking is important, but today's bombings once again stress that the Syrian government and its allies like Russia and Iran are very much correct when they say that the priority must be terrorism, and then other issues will be addressed, like constitutional amendments, elections and the fate of the Syrian president Bashar Assad... [which is] contrary to the position taken by some of the Syrian opposition factions."