DAMASCUS // Twin bombs targeting Shiite pilgrims killed 46 people in Damascus, most of them Iraqis, on Saturday in one of the bloodiest attacks in the Syrian capital.
There have been periodic bomb attacks in Damascus, but the stronghold of the regime of president Bashar Al Assad has been largely spared the destruction faced by other major cities in six years of civil war.
A roadside bomb detonated as a bus passed and a suicide bomber blew himself up in the Bab Al Saghir area, which houses several Shiite mausoleums that draw pilgrims from around the world, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“There are also dozens of people wounded, some of them in a serious condition,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
State television said there were 40 dead and 120 wounded after “terrorists detonated two bombs”.
It broadcast footage of several white buses with their windows shattered, some of them heavily charred.
Shoes, glasses and wheelchairs laid scattered on the ground covered in blood.
Syrian interior minister Mohammad Shaar said the attack targeted “pilgrims of various Arab nationalities”.
“The sole aim was to kill,” he said.
The Iraqi foreign ministry said around 40 of its nationals were among the dead and 120 among the wounded. Ministry spokesman Ahmed Jamal said buses carrying Iraqi pilgrims to the shrines were targeted. He said a crisis response team has been formed to expedite the identification and transport of the killed and wounded.
“The ministry calls on the international community to condemn this heinous terrorist crime that targeted civilian Iraqi visitors to the holy shrines. It also urges a firm and decisive stand against the takfiri groups responsible for them,” Mr Jamal said. The bombings could provide the impetus for increased Iraqi strikes against ISIL in Syria, which Baghdad has already carried out near the border.
A witness said the second bomb struck as passers-by gathered at the scene of the first attack, while state television said a booby-trapped motorcycle was defused nearby.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks, but ISIL militants have carried out similar attacks before against Shiite shrines in the Syrian capital and elsewhere.
Shiite shrines are a frequent target of attack for Sunni extremists of Al Qaeda and ISIL, not only in Syria but also in neighbouring Iraq.
The foreign ministry in Damascus condemned “the cowardly terrorist attack which comes in response to victories of the Syrian Arab Army” against extremists. While bomb attacks are rare in Damascus, the capital has been the target of shelling by rebels who hold areas on the outskirts.
The Sayeda Zeinab mausoleum to the south of Damascus, Syria’s most visited Shiite pilgrimage site, has been hit by several deadly bombings during the war, with the worst in February 2016 costing 134 lives, in an attack claimed by ISIL.
Twin suicide bombings in the high-security Kafr Sousa district of the capital in January killed 10 people, eight of them soldiers. That attack was claimed by former Al Qaeda affiliate Fateh Al Sham Front which said that it had targeted Russian military advisers working with the Syrian army. ISIL’s de facto capital in Syria, the northern city of Raqqa, is under threat from advancing Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab forces as well as Syrian government troops supported by Russia.
Three hundred families of foreign ISIL fighters have fled Raqqa in 24 hours on boats across the Euphrates River to the south, the Observatory said.
Also on Saturday, Syria’s president Bashar Assad said his military’s priority is to reach the ISIL’s de facto capital of Raqqa — toward which US-backed Kurdish-led forces are also advancing.
In an interview with Hong-Kong based Phoenix TV that was aired Saturday, Mr Assad said another ISIL stronghold, Deir El Zour, may be targeted in parallel.
Syria’s battlefields have become increasingly crowded. US-led coalition forces in collaboration with Syrian Kurdish fighters as well as Turkish troops and Syrian allies and Syrian government troops, backed by Russia and Iran, are all converging to clear northern Syria of the remnants of Islamic State militants. In some incidents, the teeming battlefield has caused friction between rival groups, as well as several civilian casualties.
Mr Assad said that “in theory” he shares the same priority with president Donald Trump of fighting terrorism but that they have had no formal contact yet. He said Russia, a major ally, hopes it can urge the US and Turkey to cooperate with Moscow and Damascus in the fight against terrorism in Syria.
* Agence France-Presse and Associated Press