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Syria shrine attack in Damascus 'deadliest in war'

At least 90 civilians were among those killed when suicide attacks claimed by IS [Getty]

Date of publication: 22 February, 2016

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Video: The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for suicide blasts in the Syrian cities of Damascus and Homs on Sunday, killing hundreds of civilians, as ceasefire efforts intensify.
A string of bomb attacks near a Shia shrine south of Damascus on Sunday killed 120 people, in the deadliest attack since Syria's war erupted in 2011.

At least 90 civilians were among those killed when suicide attacks claimed by the Islamic State [IS] group ripped through the area of the Sayyida Zeinab shrine.

They included displaced people from other parts of Syria, devastated by a nearly five-year conflict, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights [SOHR] said.

The rest of the dead were from pro-regime security forces, according to Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

The bloodiest attack before Sunday's explosions had been carried out by al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate in May 2012 near Damascus and had killed 112 people.

Sunday's blasts drew sharp condemnation from UN special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura.

Footage from the Sayyida Zeinab neighbourhood showed people running in narrow streets as others carried the wounded, including several children.

Footage from the Sayyida Zeinab neighbourhood showed people running in narrow streets as others carried the wounded, including several children

The Sayyida Zeinab shrine, believed to contain the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad's granddaughter, is a major site for Shia pilgrims.

The area has been frequently targeted by militants, as Shia shrines are seen as "heresies" by the IS group.

In January, at least 71 people were killed in the same district in a triple-bombing also claimed by IS.

The Islamic State group also claimed responsibility for the bombings in an Alawite district in the city of Homs.

The death toll of those killed by the two car bombs in the district of al-Zahraa rose to 57, including at least 11 women.

Read Also: Assad says he is saving Syria and insults millions

Ceasefire efforts intensify

Syria's main opposition umbrella group is meeting in the Saudi capital on Monday as Washington and Moscow worked to secure a ceasefire.

The meeting is expected to continue for two or three days to discuss developments since the group decided to attend peace talks in Geneva last month.

World powers, which have been pushing for a halt to Syria's nearly five-year war, had hoped to see a truce take effect last Friday but have struggled to agree on the terms.

They proposed the truce as part of a plan that also included expanded humanitarian access, in a bid to pave the way for the UN-led peace negotiations to resume.

The talks collapsed earlier this month.

They had been scheduled to resume this Thursday but UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura has acknowledged that date is no longer realistic.

At the weekend, the opposition said it would agree to a truce only if regime backers Moscow and Tehran halted their fire.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said his government was ready to take part in a truce as long as it is not used by militants to reinforce their positions.

"We announced that we're ready," Assad told Spain's El Pais newspaper on Sunday.

"It's about preventing other countries, especially Turkey, from sending more recruits, more terrorists, more armaments, or any kind of logistical support to those terrorists," Assad said.

Assad's government refers to all the armed groups fighting the regime, including IS, as terrorists.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia are among the leading supporters of the insurgents.

But continued fighting around the northern city of Aleppo is posing a serious threat to the implementation of any deal.

On Monday, IS and other extremists cut a vital supply route linking the west of Syria's second city Aleppo with other government-held territory.

The road between Aleppo and the town of Khanasser to the southeast was the only way regime forces and civilians living in government-controlled neighbourhoods of the city could travel to surrounding provinces.

If government forces are unable to recapture the road, it could slow an offensive they launched in the countryside around Aleppo earlier this year.

It could also worsen severe shortages of food and water for civilians, SOHR said.

Russia and the US, along with other world powers agreed earlier this month to work on a "cessation of hostilities" deal and to the delivery of aid to besieged Syrian towns.

The aid shipments were received in several besieged areas last week.

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