ALBERT AJI and BASSEM MROW
DAMAS, Syria (AP) – Two bombs attached to a bus carrying Syrian troops exploded in Damascus during Wednesday morning rush hour, a military official said. Fourteen people died in the attack, one of the deadliest in the capital in recent years.
While the 10-year conflict between the Syrian government and rebels continues in parts of the country, including the rebel-held northwest, bombings in Damascus have become extremely rare since President Bashar al-Assad’s troops drove opposition fighters out of the capital’s suburbs in 2018.
The explosions, which injured several people, occurred at a busy intersection near the main bus transfer point, where passengers and schoolchildren usually converge. In the aftermath of the bombings, Syrian state television showed footage of smoke rising from a burnt bus as soldiers sprayed a car with a hose and spectators flocked to a nearby bridge to watch.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but several rebel and jihadist groups that seek to topple Assad are active in Syria.
In addition, rescuers said 10 people were killed, including four children and a woman, as a result of the government’s shelling of the city in the last rebel enclave in the northwest of the country. UN Deputy Regional Humanitarian Coordinator Mark Cutts called the reports of shelling of markets and roads near schools as “shocking” as students headed to their classrooms.
According to the UN Children’s Agency UNICEF, in addition to the four killed children, their teacher was also killed.
“Today’s violence is another reminder that the war in Syria is not over. Civilians, many of whom are children, continue to bear the brunt of a violent decade of conflict, ”the agency said in a statement.
The attack was one of the most violent in the area since the March 2020 ceasefire in the northwest between Turkey and Russia, allies of the opposition and the Syrian government, respectively. The ceasefire was repeatedly broken, and government forces often vowed to take back territories still outside their control.
Meanwhile, in the central city of Hama, an explosion in an arms depot has killed six pro-government militants, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an observer of the opposition war.
While fighting is still raging in the northwest, Assad’s forces now control much of Syria after military support from his allies, Russia and Iran, helped tilt the balance of power in his favor. Meanwhile, American and Turkish troops are stationed in parts of the north of the country.
In recent years, attacks like Wednesday have been rare in Damascus. One of the most recent major explosions occurred in 2017, when suicide bombers struck a courthouse and a restaurant, killing about 60 people. The attacks were stated by the militants of the Islamic State group. The extremist organization has not held territory in Syria since 2019, but continues to pose a threat with its sleeping cells, mostly hiding in the vast Syrian desert.
State media initially described the attack in Damascus as a roadside bombing. But they later quoted an unnamed Syrian military official as saying there were bombs attached to the outside of the car. According to the official, the third bomb fell from the bus and was disassembled by the military. The government is characterized by the dissemination of information from anonymous sources in the state media. It was unclear if all of the victims were bus passengers.
Shelling in the northwest on Wednesday hit the city of Ariha in Idlib province, which is largely controlled by rebel groups, including the dominant Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, once associated with al-Qaeda.
The Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, reported that in addition to 10 killed, 20 more were injured when dozens of shells fell into the city. According to rescuers, they are still looking for survivors among the wreckage.
The conflict in Syria began in March 2011, killing between 350,000 and 450,000 people and displacing half of the country’s population, including 5 million refugees abroad.
On Wednesday, New York-based Human Rights Watch called on countries in the region and Europe that host Syrian refugees to stop forcing them to return to the war-torn country. The human rights group said that while active hostilities may have decreased in recent years, the Syrian government continues to pursue the same violations against citizens that drove them to flee in the first place.
In its report, HRW said it documented 21 cases of arrest and arbitrary detention, 13 cases of torture, three abductions, five extrajudicial executions, 17 enforced disappearances and one case of alleged sexual violence among 65 refugees or their families interviewed.
“The heavy tales of torture, enforced disappearance and ill-treatment of refugees who have returned to Syria should make it clear that Syria is not safe to return,” said Nadia Hardman, refugee and migrant rights researcher at HRW.
Mru reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb from Beirut also contributed.