At least 45 killed in suicide attacks near Damascus; peace talks remain in limbo

By Patrick J. McDonnell and Nabih Bulos, Los Angeles Times

Coordinated suicide attacks near a major Shiite Muslim shrine outside Damascus killed at least 45 and wounded more than 100, Syrian state media reported Sunday, as negotiators from the Syrian government and the opposition gathered in Geneva for planned peace talks.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks, asserting in a social media message that “two soldiers” had struck Sayyda Zeinab, a largely Shiite district south of the capital, “harvesting” about 50 killed and 120 wounded.

The Sayyda Zeinab area is home to a shrine revered by Shiite Muslims, who travel from all over the world to visit the glittering, gold leaf-domed mausoleum, said to bear the remains of a granddaughter of Muhammad. Pilgrims continue to visit the shrine despite the dangers in war-ravaged Syria.

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Syrian state television broadcast images of charred vehicles and damaged buildings in the aftermath of the attack, and reported “significant material damage to commercial establishments and homes.”

But there was no indication that the heavily guarded shrine, which has often been targeted by mortar fire and other attacks, was damaged. Visitors to the shrine must pass through several cordons of security staffed by Shiite militiamen.

Syrian state media described the attack as a triple bombing: A car bomb first struck a passenger bus, and two suicide bombers then detonated explosives-laden belts when citizens gathered to aid the wounded, the official Syrian news service said.

Islamic State, an ultra-fundamentalist Sunni Muslim group that has overrun territory in Syria and Iraq, views Shiites as apostates and has engaged in numerous mass killings of Shiites and other Muslims whom they denounce as infidels. The group, which became infamous for public beheadings of Western captives, also routinely executes captured Syrian army prisoners and other enemies.

Islamic State and Nusra Front, the al-Qaida franchise in Syria, have been excluded from the Geneva talks because they are deemed terrorist groups.

The United Nations-backed peace talks here have had a rocky start, and it remained unclear late Sunday if negotiations between the government and opposition activists would take place.

The main opposition group, the High Negotiations Committee, belatedly sent a delegation to Geneva from its base in Saudi Arabia but declared that it would engage in talks with the government only if Damascus first took several steps, including a halt to bombing and besieging rebel-held zones. The Syrian government accused the group of not being serious about negotiations.

The opposition representatives met Sunday with the chief United Nations mediator, Staffan de Mistura. The U.N. described the meeting as a short “courtesy visit” by de Mistura, but gave no details on the next stage of the proposed talks.

“We are here to ensure that Syria is free of dictatorship and free of terrorism,” Salim Muslet, an opposition committee spokesman, said Sunday in a statement. “We are here to make this a success no matter how long it takes.”

A top U.N. official also paid a “courtesy visit” to the hotel where representatives of the Syrian government are staying, the U.N. said.

The chief Syrian government negotiator, Bashar al-Jaafari, Damascus’ ambassador to the United Nations, said in Geneva that the opposition’s late arrival to Syria was “proof of lack of seriousness and responsibility.” He noted that there was still no final list of opposition representatives participating in the Geneva process.

Most of the opposition delegation did not arrive in Geneva until Saturday, a day after the talks were to begin.

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