AMMAN/BEIRUT (REUTERS/AFP) - At least 60 people were killed, including 25 Shi’ite fighters, and dozens wounded on Sunday (Jan 31) by a car bomb and two suicide bombers in a district of Damascus where Syria’s holiest Shi’ite shrine is located, a monitor said.
The Sunni fundamentalist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group claimed responsibility for the attacks, according to Amaq, a news agency that supports the group. It said two operations "hit the most important stronghold of Shi’ite militias in Damascus".
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 neighbourhood'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 UN-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 towards 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 Sayyida 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 Hizbollah, which has set up protective roadblocks around it.
It has been targeted before, including in February 2015, when 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 Shi'ite pilgrims headed to Sayyida Zeinab, killing at least nine people, in an attack claimed by Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front.
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.