Islamic State blasts kill over 70 near key Syria Shiite shrine; peace talks falter

AFP-JIJI/AP/reuters

Bombings claimed by the Islamic State group killed 71 people and wounded dozens more on Sunday near a revered Shiite shrine outside the Syrian capital Damascus, a monitor said.

The blasts, which came as the U.N.’s Syria envoy struggled to convene fresh peace talks in Geneva from which Islamic State is excluded, tore a massive crater in the road, overturning and mangling cars and a bus and shattering windows.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said 71 people were killed in two blasts near the Sayyida Zeinab shrine, including five children.

The first blast was a suicide car bomb, followed by a second suicide bomber who detonated his explosive belt when a crowd gathered, the monitoring group said.

Syrian state media earlier reported more than 50 people killed and over 100 injured in what it described as three blasts.

Official news agency SANA said the first blast was caused by a car bomb that detonated at a bus station near the shrine, which both Iran and Lebanon’s militant group Hezbollah have vowed to defend.

It said two suicide bombers then set off their explosive belts when people gathered at the scene.

An AFP photographer said the explosions damaged the facade of a nearby building, scorching all of its six storys.

Sayyida Zeinab, south of Damascus, contains the grave of a granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad and is particularly revered as a pilgrimage site by Shiite Muslims.

It has continued to attract pilgrims from Syria and beyond, particularly Shiites from Iran, Lebanon, and Iraq, throughout Syria’s nearly five-year brutal conflict.

Sunni Muslim extremist groups such as Islamic State consider Shiites to be heretics and have frequently targeted them in attacks.

In the aftermath of Sunday morning’s attack, smoke rose from the twisted carcasses of more than a dozen cars and a bus, as ambulances ferried away the wounded and firefighters worked to put out blazes.

In a statement circulated on social media, Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying two of its members had detonated suicide bombs.

“Two soldiers of the caliphate carried out martyrdom operations in a den of the infidels in the Sayyida Zeinab area, killing nearly 50 and injuring around 120,” it said.

The area around the shrine has been targeted in previous bomb attacks, including in February 2015, when two suicide attacks killed four people and wounded 13 at a checkpoint.

Also that month, 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-Qaida affiliate Nusra Front.

The area around the shrine is heavily secured with regime checkpoints set up hundreds of meters (yards) away to prevent vehicles from approaching.

According to the Observatory, members of Lebanon’s powerful Shiite group Hezbollah are among those deployed at the checkpoints.

Hezbollah is a staunch ally of Syria’s President Bashar Assad and has dispatched fighters to bolster his troops against the uprising that began in March 2011 with anti-government protests.

Early on, the group cited the threat to Sayyida Zeinab as the motivation for its intervention in Syria’s conflict.

More than 260,000 people have been killed in Syria’s conflict, which has also displaced upward of half the country’s population internally and abroad.

It has evolved into a complex, multifront war involving rebels, jihadis, regime and allied forces, Kurds and airstrikes by both government ally Russia and a U.S.-led coalition battling against Islamic State.

In a new effort to find a political solution to the conflict, U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura has invited regime and opposition delegations to Geneva for fresh talks.

But while the opposition agreed to travel to Geneva after days of delays, it has so far refused to engage in indirect talks with the government.

It is demanding that U.N. Security Council resolutions on ending sieges and protecting civilians be implemented first.

On Sunday, the U.N. envoy held informal talks with the main opposition delegation, saying afterward that he remained “optimistic and determined.”

The Damascus delegation’s chief negotiator, Syria’s U.N. envoy Bashar al-Jaafari, accused the opposition of being “not serious” about the talks.

It was earlier reported that a triple bombing killed at least 50 people in a predominantly Shiite suburb south of Damascus on Sunday even as a U.N. mediator held his first meeting with members of the main opposition group that seeks progress on humanitarian issues before it will join formal talks on ending the five-year civil war.

The attacks were claimed by militants from the Islamic State group, and Syria’s delegate to the U.N.-sponsored peace talks said the violence confirmed the connection between “terrorism” and “some political groups” — a reference to those who oppose President Assad.

The blasts went off in the Damascus suburb of Sayyda Zeinab, about 600 meters from one of the holiest shrines for Shiite Muslims. Syria’s state news agency SANA said the attackers detonated a car bomb at a bus stop and that two suicide bombers then set off more explosives as rescuers rushed to the area.

State TV showed several burning cars and a scorched bus, as well as blown out windows, twisted metal and large holes in the facade of a nearby apartment building. The golden-domed Shiite shrine itself was not damaged.

At least 50 people were killed, the Syrian Foreign Ministry said, with more than 100 wounded.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based opposition group that monitors the conflict, said at least 63 people were killed, including 25 pro-government Shiite fighters. It said the dead fighters included Syrians and foreigners.

The suburb is one of the first areas where Lebanon’s Hezbollah group sent fighters in 2012 to protect it from Sunni extremists who vowed to blow up the shrine. Hezbollah and Shiite groups from Iraq are known to have fighters in the area.

A website affiliated with the Islamic State group said the attacks were carried out by members of the Sunni Muslim extremist group, which controls large areas in both Syria and Iraq.

The bombings cast a shadow over the Geneva talks, the first U.N. effort since 2014 to try to end the conflict that has killed at least 250,000 people, forced millions to flee the country, and given an opening to Islamic State militants to capture territory.

In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry appealed to both sides “to make the most of this moment, to seize the opportunity for serious negotiations, to negotiate in good faith with the goal of making concrete measurable progress in the days immediately ahead.”

“Now, while battlefield dynamics can affect negotiating leverage, in the end there is no military solution to this conflict,” Kerry said. “Without negotiations, the bloodshed will drag on until the last city is reduced to rubble and virtually every home, every form of infrastructure, and every semblance of civilization is destroyed.”

The talks got off to a rocky start Friday when U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura met only with a Syrian government delegation. The main opposition group, the Saudi-backed Higher Negotiations Committee, or HNC, boycotted the session, saying it won’t take part until preliminary demands are met: the release of detainees, the end of the bombardment of civilians by Russian and Syrian forces, and the lifting of government blockades on rebel-held areas.

On Sunday, de Mistura paid an informal visit to the HNC delegation, saying he is “optimistic and determined” about the talks.

HNC spokesman Salem al-Mislet told The Associated Press that the violence against civilians must stop first, saying the U.N. Security Council should put “pressure on Russia to stop these crimes in Syria,” he said. Moscow, which began its airstrikes in Syria in September, is a major Assad ally, along with Iran.

But Bashar Ja’afari, the head of the Syrian delegation, criticized the opposition in remarks to reporters.

“Those who speak about preconditions are coming to this meeting in order to derail it,” he said. “With the opposition’s delegation not showing up, it shows that they are not serious and irresponsible at a time when Syrians are being killed.”

Ja’afari added that the Damascus-area carnage “confirms what the Syrian government has stated before — that there is a link between terrorism and the sponsors of terrorism from one side, and some political groups, who claim that they are against terrorism.”

Assad’s government has long referred to all those fighting to overthrow him as terrorists, but has agreed to negotiations with some armed groups in the latest talks.

On Saturday night, Syrian Information Minister Omar al-Zoubi told state TV the Assad government will “never accept” the inclusion in the peace talks of two militant groups it considers terrorists.

Ahrar al-Sham and the Army of Islam, two Islamic groups fighting to overthrow Assad, agreed to take part in the Geneva talks. The ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham is not part of the team sent to Geneva, but the delegation has named Army of Islam official Mohammed Alloush as its chief negotiator.

Alloush told AP he is heading to Geneva for the talks.

While virtually all parties agree that Islamic State and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front should be excluded from the talks, the two sides are divided over Ahrar al-Sham and the Army of Islam. The mainstream opposition views both as fellow rebels, despite their ideological differences, while Syria’s government and Russia view them as extremists.

Representatives of the Saudi-backed Higher Negotiation Committee (HNC), which includes political and militant opponents of President Bashar Assad, warned they may yet walk away from the Geneva talks unless the suffering of civilians in the five-year conflict is eased.

The Syrian government’s chief delegate retorted that the blasts in Damascus, which the Interior Ministry blamed on a car bomb and two suicide bombers, merely confirmed the link between the opposition and terrorism — even though Islamic State has been excluded from the talks.

The United Nations is aiming for six months of talks, first on a cease-fire, then working toward a political settlement to the civil war that has killed over 250,000 people, driven more than 10 million from their homes and drawn in global powers.

The HNC has insisted airstrikes and sieges of Syrian towns must end before it joins the “proximity talks” in which de Mistura would meet each side in separate rooms.

“In view of the (Syrian) regime and its allies’ insistence in violating the rights of the Syrian people, the presence of the HNC delegation in Geneva would not have any justification and the HNC could pull its negotiating team out,” the group’s coordinator, Riad Hijab, said in an online statement.

However, an opposition spokesman described discussions on Sunday with de Mistura as very positive, adding there would be further meetings on Monday. “Things are encouraging and positive concerning humanitarian issues,” he said.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the talks — the first in two years — as long overdue. “I urge all parties to put the people of Syria at the heart of their discussions, and above partisan interests,” he said during a visit to Ethiopia.

In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged both sides to seize the opportunity to make progress. “In the end there is no military solution to the conflict,” he said in a televised statement.

The Syrian government’s delegation head in Geneva, Bashar al-Jaafari, said Damascus was considering options such as cease-fires, humanitarian corridors and prisoner releases, but suggested they might come about as a result of the talks, not before them.

“Absolutely, this is part of the agenda that we agreed upon and that will be one of the very important topics we will discuss among ourselves as Syrian citizens,” Jaafari said.

Russian airstrikes have killed nearly 1,400 civilians since Moscow started its aerial campaign in support of Assad nearly four months ago, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said on Saturday.

Opposition delegate Bassma Kodmani said the bombings had increased in the last week. “In preparations for the negotiations, everything has intensified. The sieges have become total,” she said, adding later that her delegation was likely to stay at least three to four days in Geneva.

On Sunday, the United Nations said that Mouadamiya, a rebel-held town of 45,000 on the southwestern edge of Damascus, faced a new siege by government forces.

Moscow has objected to two Islamist rebel groups, Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, taking any part in the talks. However, a negotiator from Jaish al-Islam, Mohamed Alloush, told Reuters he was going to Geneva to show that the Syrian government was not serious about seeking a political solution.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for Sunday’s attacks in the Sayeda Zeinab district of Damascus, according to Amaq, a news agency that supports the militant group.

It said two operations “hit the most important stronghold of Shiite militias in Damascus”.

The Britain-based Observatory put the death toll at over 60, including 25 Shiite fighters.

Earlier, the Interior Ministry had reported at least 45 dead and 110 people wounded, while state television showed footage of burning buildings and wrecked cars in the neighborhood.

The heavily populated area of southern Damascus is a site of pilgrimage for Shiites from Iran, Lebanon and other parts of the Muslim world.

The shrine houses the grave of the daughter of Ali ibn Abi Taleb, whom Shiites consider the rightful successor to Prophet Muhammad. The dispute over the succession led to the major Sunni-Shiite schism in Islam.

Islamic State has been excluded from the talks as the U.N. has classified it a terrorist group. Nevertheless Jaafari said the blasts confirmed the link between the opposition and terrorism, pointing to the attacks and comments from a leader of the Southern Front, another rebel coalition.

“This confirms what the Syrian government has said over and over again — that there is a link between terrorism and those who sponsor terrorism from one side and some political groups that pretend to be against terrorism,” he said.

Jaafari added that Damascus favored “an enlarged national government” as one phase of the process, but made no mention of creating a transitional administration without Assad, as the opposition demands.