By ALBERT AJI and BASSEM MROUE
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Two bombs attached to a bus carrying Syrian troops exploded in Damascus during the morning rush hour Wednesday, a military official said. Fourteen people were killed in the attack, one of the deadliest in the capital in years.
While the Syrian government’s decade-long conflict with insurgents continues in parts of the country including the rebel-held northwest, bombings in Damascus have become exceedingly rare since President Bashar Assad’s troops pushed opposition fighters from the capital’s suburbs in 2018.
The explosions, which also left several wounded, happened at a busy intersection, near a main bus transfer point where commuters and schoolchildren typically converge. After the blasts, Syrian state TV showed footage of smoke rising from a charred bus as soldiers hosed down the vehicle and onlookers flocked to a nearby bridge to watch.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but several insurgent and jihadist groups that seek to overthrow Assad are active in Syria.
Separately, rescue workers reported 10 people were killed, including four children and a woman, in government shelling of a town in the last rebel enclave in the country’s northwest. The U.N. Deputy Regional Humanitarian Coordinator Mark Cutts described as “shocking” the reports of the shelling that hit a market and roads near schools as students were heading to classes.
In addition to the four children killed, their teacher also died, according to UNICEF, the U.N. children’s agency.
“Today’s violence is yet another reminder that the war in Syria has not come to an end. Civilians, among them many children, keep bearing the brunt of a brutal decade-long conflict,” the agency said.
The attack was one of the most violent in the area since a March 2020 truce in the northwest negotiated by Turkey and Russia — allies of the opposition and Syrian government, respectively. The truce has been repeatedly violated, and government forces often vow to take territories still out of their control.
In the central city of Hama, meanwhile, an explosion at an arms depot left six pro-government fighters dead, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor.
While fighting still rages in the northwest, Assad’s forces now control much of Syria after military support from his allies Russia and Iran helped tip the balance of power in his favor. U.S. and Turkish troops, meanwhile, are deployed in part’s of the country’s north.
In recent years, attacks such as Wednesday’s have been rare in Damascus. One of the last major explosions to take place there was in 2017 — when suicide bombers hit a judicial office building and a restaurant, killing nearly 60 people. The attacks were claimed by Islamic State group militants. The extremist organization has not held territory in Syria since 2019, but it continues to represent a threat with sleeper cells, mostly hiding in Syria’s expansive desert.
State media initially described the Damascus attack as a roadside bombing. But they later quoted an unnamed Syrian military official as saying that bombs were attached to the vehicle’s exterior. A third bomb fell from the bus and was dismantled by troops, the official said. It is typical for the government to release information using anonymous sources in state media. It was not clear if all the dead were bus passengers.
Wednesday’s shelling in the northwest hit the town of Ariha, in Idlib province, which is mostly controlled by rebel groups, including the dominant Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, once affiliated with al-Qaida.
The Syrian Civil Defense, also known as White Helmets, said aside from the 10 killed, 20 more were wounded when dozens of shells landed in the town. The rescuers said they were still searching through the wreckage for survivors.
Syria’s conflict began in March 2011 and has left between 350,000 and 450,000 people dead and displaced half the country’s population, including 5 million who are refugees abroad.
On Wednesday, New York-based Human Rights Watch called on countries in the region and Europe hosting Syrian refugees to stop forcing them to return to the war-torn country. The rights group said while active hostilities may have decreased in recent years, the Syrian government has continued to pursue the same abuses against citizens that led them to flee in the first place.
In its report, HRW said it has documented 21 cases of arrest and arbitrary detention, 13 cases of torture, three kidnappings, five extrajudicial killings, 17 enforced disappearances and one case of alleged sexual violence among 65 refugees or family members interviewed.
“The harrowing accounts of torture, enforced disappearance, and abuse that refugees who went back to Syria endured should make it patently clear that Syria is not safe for returns,” said Nadia Hardman, refugee and migrant rights researcher with HRW.
Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb in Beirut also contributed.
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