DAMASCUS: At least 60 people were killed and 120 wounded on Sunday in three bomb blasts near the revered shrine of Bibi Zainab (SA) outside the Syrian capital Damascus, state media said.
State news agency SANA said the first blast was caused by a car bomb that exploded at a bus station near the shrine. It said two suicide bombers then detonated their explosive belts when people gathered at the scene. The eyewitnesses said the blasts caused massive damage, shattering windows and ripping a huge crater in the road.
Smoke rose from the twisted carcasses of more than a dozen cars and a bus damaged in the blasts, as ambulances ferried away the wounded and firefighters worked to put out blazes started by the bombings.
The Islamic State group said on social media it had carried out the attack.
Sunday’s attacks were carried out by two suicide bombers, but some witnesses spoke of three blasts. TV footage showed burning buildings and destroyed vehicles.
The shrine south of the capital contains the grave of a granddaughter of Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and is particularly revered as a pilgrimage site by Muslims.
It has continued to attract pilgrims from Syria and beyond, particularly from Iran, Lebanon, and Iraq, throughout the war, and has been targeted in previous bomb attacks. In February 2015, two suicide attacks killed four people and wounded 13 at a checkpoint near the shrine.
Also that month, a blast ripped through a bus carrying Lebanese pilgrims headed to Bibi Zainab (SA), killing at least nine people, in an attack claimed by Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front. The area around the shrine is heavily secured with regime checkpoints set up hundreds of metres away to prevent vehicles from getting close to the shrine of Bibi Zainab (SA).
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, members of Lebanon’s powerful group Hezbollah are among those deployed at the checkpoints. The Britain-based monitor said 47 people were killed in the blasts, including a car bomb that targeted a checkpoint, and included non-Syrian militants without specifying their nationalities. Hezbollah is a staunch ally of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and has dispatched fighters to bolster his troops against the uprising that began in March 2011 with anti-government protests.
More than 260,000 people have been killed in Syria’s conflict, which has also displaced over half the country’s population internally and abroad.
The attack happened as the government and opposition groups gathered in Geneva in a bid to start talks aimed at a political solution to the conflict.
While both sides are in Geneva, the talks have yet to begin – the main opposition group says the Syrian government must first meet key humanitarian demands.
US Secretary of State John Kerry urged both sides to seize the opportunity to end the bloodshed.
Kerry said there was ‘no military solution’ to the spiralling crisis, which he warned could engulf the region if the tentative UN-sponsored negotiations fail as previous attempts have.
BBC Arab affairs editor Sebastian Usher says Shia fighters from around the region have joined the conflict in Syria on the grounds that they wish to protect the shrine from the civil war. The Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah has cited it as a key reason that it chose to fight on the side of President Bashar al-Assad, he adds.
The violence has also been the biggest driver behind Europe’s migration crisis. The opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC), backed by Saudi Arabia, agreed late on Friday that it would travel to Geneva – hours after the Syrian government delegation had arrived and held preliminary talks with UN envoy Staffan de Mistura. Hostility between key players remains high, with the Syrian government’s envoy Bashar al-Jaafari saying the HNC’s last-minute decision to take part showed it was ‘not serious’.
He said the Bibi Zainab (SA) shrine attack confirmed the link between the opposition and terrorism.