Suicide bombers strike Syrian capital as war enters 7th year
ALBERT AJI, Associated Press
ZEINA KARAM, Associated Press
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Suicide bombers hit the main judicial building and a restaurant in Damascus Wednesday, killing at least 30 people and spreading fear across Syria's capital as the country's civil war entered its seventh year with no end in sight.
The attacks bore the hallmarks of Syria's al-Qaida affiliate and reflect a renewed effort by the extremist group to use insurgent tactics against President Bashar Assad's forces in a bid to recover lost momentum.
The first attacker, reportedly dressed in a military uniform, struck inside the Justice Palace, located near the famous and crowded Hamidiyeh market. The explosion left bodies lying amid pools of blood and shattered glass in the building's main hall, where a picture of President Bashar Assad hung on one of the walls.
The official news agency, SANA, said another suicide explosion about an hour later struck a restaurant in the Rabweh district of Damascus, an area known for its restaurants and cafes, leading to multiple casualties, mostly women and children. Syrian TV showed overturned plastic chairs and tables at the restaurant with bloodstains on the floor.
The Ikhbariyeh TV channel said the attacker was being chased by security agents when he ran into a restaurant and detonated his explosives' vest there.
The bombings were the latest in a spate of deadly explosions and suicide attacks targeting government-controlled areas in Syria and its capital. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for either attack, but other, similar attacks in recent weeks were claimed by al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria, which has come under pressure lately amid infighting with other insurgent factions in Syria and airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.
The attacks came as Syrians mark the sixth anniversary of the country's civil war, which has killed more than 400,000 people and displaced millions of others. The conflict began in March 2011 as a popular uprising against Assad's rule but quickly descended into a full-blown civil war that has left large parts of the country in ruins. The chaos allowed al-Qaida and later the Islamic State group to gain a foothold in the war-torn nation.
Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, told The Associated Press Wednesday following a three-day trip to Syria that what he has seen is "unprecedented," even in comparison to conflict zones like Yemen, Sudan, Sierra Leone and Rwanda.
"I have never seen a level of destruction so big as I have been seeing over the last few days," he said.
Russia and Turkey, who back opposing sides of the conflict, have been working together to launch a political track focused initially on a cease-fire in Syria, and the U.N.'s Syria envoy held another round of peace talks in Geneva recently, but the talks have gone nowhere. Militant groups such as the Islamic State group and the Nusra Front, now known as the Levant Liberation Committee, are not part of those talks.
The recent attacks have struck at highly symbolic targets, and may mark the start of a new insurgency campaign by the al-Qaida-linked militants to try and counter recent military advances by Assad's forces, backed by Russia and Iran.
"Deploying sleepers as suicide bombers deep behind enemy lines is (al-Qaida's) way of telling Syrians that it remains an invaluable component of the revolutionary struggle against the Assad regime and that the armed struggle is far from over, despite losses in Aleppo and elsewhere," said Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah group, which has sent thousands of its fighters to shore up Assad's forces, said the attacks were a "futile response to the great victories that the Syrian army and its allies are achieving on more than one front in Syria."
Wednesday's bombings followed twin attacks on Saturday near holy shrines frequented by Shiites in Damascus that killed at least 40 people.
On Feb. 25, insurgents stormed into heavily guarded security offices in Syria's central city of Homs, clashed with government troops and then blew themselves up, killing a senior officer and at least 31 others in a major security breach. Both attacks were claimed by the Levant Liberation Committee.
There was no claim for Wednesday's attack.
According to Damascus police chief Mohammad Kheir Ismail, the Justice Palace attacker struck in the early afternoon — at 1:20 p.m. A man wearing a military uniform and carrying a shotgun and grenades arrived at the entrance to the palace, the police chief told state TV.
The guards stopped the man, took away his arms and tried to search him. At that point, the man hurled himself inside the building and detonated his explosives, the chief said.
Syria's attorney general, Ahmad al-Sayed, who was in the building just a few meters away from the explosion, confirmed that account to state TV, saying that when the security guards tried to arrest the man, he threw himself inside the palace and blew himself up. He said 30 people were killed and 45 others wounded.
"This is a dirty action as people who enter the palace are innocent," he said, noting that the timing of the explosion was planned to kill the largest number of lawyers, judges and other people who were there at the time.
Ambulances rushed to the scene to transfer casualties to hospital.
Elsewhere in Syria, at least 15 children and seven other civilians were killed in an airstrike on the rebel-held city of Idlib, according to Civil Defense search-and-rescue group. The group, also known as the White Helmets, said its rescuers worked all day to reach victims in the rubble.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said 21 civilians were killed. It said the aircraft behind the attack were believed to be Russian. Syrian government aircraft are also known to fly raids over Idlib.
Wednesday's attacks also came during a new round of peace talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana that was boycotted by Syria's armed opposition due to what they say are ongoing government military offensives across the country.
Syria's U.N. ambassador said earlier Wednesday that he was concluding his participation in the latest round after two days of meetings without rebels. Bashar Jaafari said discussions were "constructive" but only one official paper was produced — about demining Palmyra, the historic Syrian town that pro-government forces recaptured from the Islamic State group two weeks ago.
Meanwhile, taking stock of six years of Syria's civil war, the U.N. health agency said in Geneva on Wednesday that over half of all hospitals and public health centers in the violence-wracked country have closed or are partially functioning, and nearly two-thirds of health-care workers have fled.
The head of the World Health Organization's emergencies program, Peter Salama, said resources to help the health care system are "stretched to the limit," citing security threats to health care workers and a lack of access to medicines and medical equipment.
Salama called for "systematic and unhindered access" for life-saving materials like vaccines and medical supplies "on this sad anniversary of the start of war in Syria and before more lives are lost."
Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Philip Issa in Beirut and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.
Photo: In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, journalists gather at the entrance of the main judicial building which was attacked by a suicide bomber, in Damascus, Syria, Wednesday, March 15, 2017. (SANA via AP)