More than 60 people, including 25 Shi’ite fighters, have been killed in twin suicide bombings by Islamic State in a heavily guarded pro-government district of the Syrian capital where an important Shi’ite shrine is located, a monitor said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the casualties were expected to rise from the suicide attacks in a district in southern Damascus where Lebanonese militant group Hezbollah and other Iraqi and Iranian militias have a strong presence.
State television showed footage of burning buildings and wrecked cars in the neighbourhood.
Syrian state news agency SANA, quoting an interior ministry source, said a group of militants had detonated a car bomb near a public transport garage in the neighborhood’s Koua Sudan area.
Two suicide bombers then blew themselves up nearby as people were being rescued.
“Bodies were still being pulled from the wreckage,” a witness told state news channel Ikhbariyah.
The heavily populated area in the south of the city is a site of pilgrimage for Shi’ites from Iran, Lebanon and other parts of the Muslim world.
The explosions occurred as representatives of Syria’s government and its divided opposition began convening in Geneva for the first U.N.-mediated peace talks in two years.
Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halaki was quoted as saying the attacks were prompted by “terror groups” who sought to “raise their morale after a string of defeats” by the army.
The United Nations has said it is aiming for six months of talks, first seeking a ceasefire and later working toward a political settlement for Syria. The nearly five-year conflict has killed more than 250,000 people, driven more than 10 million from their homes and drawn in global powers.
The Sayeda Zeinab shrine area witnessed heavy clashes in the first few years of the war but has since been secured by the Syrian army and Shi’ite militias led by Hezbollah, which has set up protective roadblocks around it.
The shrine houses the grave of the daughter of Ali ibn Abi Taleb, the cousin of Prophet Mohammed, whom Shi’ites consider the rightful successor to the prophet. The dispute over the succession led to the major Sunni-Shi’ite schism in Islam.
Iraqi and Iranian Shi’ite militia groups that have volunteered to fight Sunni Islamist radicals in Syria in a conflict that has heavy sectarian overtones often say they are coming to Syria to defend the shrine.
Many have their headquarters in the area near the shrine, according to local residents.