ISIL-claimed suicide attack kills 51 near Syria town of Al Bab

It came as the United Nations tried to get a new round of Syrian peace talks off the ground in Geneva on Friday, but there were few signs of progress

This image released by the Thiqa News Agency shows motorcycles burnt in a suicide attack targeting Turkish-backed Syrian rebels in the village of Susian, just outside the town of Al Bab, on February 24, 2017. Thiqa News Agency, via AP
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AL BAB // An ISIL-claimed suicide attack killed at least 51 people outside the Syrian town of Al Bab on Friday, just hours after it was seized from the extremists by Turkish-backed rebels.

Most of those killed in the car bomb attack were civilians, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based opposition monitoring group.

The assault targeted twin command posts at a rebel base in Susian, a village located about eight kilometres from Al Bab, the Observatory said.

Rebel field commander Abu Jaafar said fighters, Turkish soldiers, and civilians had gathered at Susian for an overnight meeting “to organise a security apparatus and set a plan for rebuilding Al Bab”.

“This information reached the [ISIL] sleeper cells, which prepared a car bomb” that detonated at Susian at around 8am local time, he said.

Abu Jaafar, who was near Susian at the time of the attack, said hospitals in the area were full of the wounded.

“[ISIL leader Abu Bakr] Al Baghdadi’s dogs could not bear their huge loss, and their suicide bombers have begun to take revenge,” he said.

Separately, two Turkish soldiers were killed in a suicide attack in Al Bab on Friday as they were carrying out road checks, Turkish prime minister Binali Yildirim said.

The strategic town, located just 25 kilometres south of the Turkish border, was ISIL’s last stronghold in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo before it was fully taken by the Turkish-backed rebels on Friday.

The attack near Al Bab came as the United Nations tried to get a new round of Syrian peace talks off the ground in Geneva on Friday, but there were few signs of progress.

UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, who brought rival regime and opposition delegates symbolically together late on Thursday, held separate meetings with the two sides on Friday to hammer out the format for the meetings.

But there appeared to be no discussion of substance, either with the UN and certainly not between the rival parties themselves.

“We discussed issues relating to the format of the talks exclusively,” said the head of the Syrian government delegation, Bashar Al Jaafari, after meeting Mr de Mistura.

He added that Mr de Mistura had given them a “paper” – which, according to a source close to the talks, covers three areas for discussion: transition in Syria, a constitution and elections.

Political “transition”, which is part of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which manages the Geneva talks, is at the heart of the debate.

But it has different meanings for Damascus and its Russian and Iranian allies on side, and the Syrian opposition on the other.

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres said he was “encouraged that the Syrians ... sat together in the same room”, even if it remains unclear whether the two sides will hold face-to-face negotiations.

During three previous rounds of talks in Geneva last year, the rivals never sat down at the same table, instead leaving Mr de Mistura to shuttle between them.

The rebels are in a significantly weaker position since the last UN-sponsored round of talks took place in April last year.

The army has recaptured the rebel bastion of eastern Aleppo, while Washington, once staunchly opposed to Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, has said it is reassessing every aspect of its Syrian policy under president Donald Trump.

Also on Friday, Russia said it would use its veto to block a proposed UN resolution drafted by the United States, France and Britain that would impose sanctions on Syria for the use of chemical weapons.

“I just explained our position very clearly to our partners. If it is tabled we will veto it,” Russian deputy ambassador Vladimir Safronkov told reporters following a closed-door meeting of the Security Council.

The US, France and Britain are pushing for a vote early next week on the proposed resolution that would slap sanctions on Syrians deemed responsible for chemical attacks in the nearly six-year war.

Mr Safronkov rejected the measure as “one-sided,” saying it was based on “insufficient proof” and contradicted “the fundamental principle of presumption of innocence until the investigation is over”.

Russia has used its veto six times to shield its Damascus ally from any punitive action by the Security Council.

The draft resolution follows a UN-led investigation which concluded in October that the Syrian military had carried out at least three chlorine attacks on opposition-held villages in 2014 and 2015.

The joint panel of the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons also found that ISIL had used mustard gas in an attack in 2015.

US Ambassador Nikki Haley said she was not swayed by the Russian arguments.

“How much longer is Russia going to continue to babysit and make excuses for the Syrian regime?” she said.

“You are either for chemical weapons or you are against it,” she added.

The Syrian government has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons in the war that has killed at least 310,000 people since March 2011.

* Agence France-Presse