x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

'Safe' Syrian neighbourhood shaken by twin car bombs, at least 34 dead

Unconfirmed reports suggest the second bomb detonated as people rushed to help those injured by the first blast. Phil Sands reports from Damascus

Syrian men inspect the scene of a car bomb in Jaramana, a mainly Christian and Druze suburb of Damascus.
Syrian men inspect the scene of a car bomb in Jaramana, a mainly Christian and Druze suburb of Damascus.

DAMASCUS // Car bombings killed at least 34 people in a largely pro-regime district on the eastern edge of Damascus yesterday.

And air strikes and artillery bombardments of rebel-held neighbourhoods south of the capital continued for a third straight day.

At least two car bombs exploded in a busy area of Jaramana - considered to be one of the safest neighbourhoods in Damascus and its suburbs.

State-run media gave a death toll of 34 with dozens wounded, but the independent Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 54 people were killed.

Unconfirmed reports suggest the second bomb detonated as people rushed to help those injured by the first blast.

Sana, the official Syrian news agency, reported two other bombs exploding.

Car bombs and suicide attacks are often aimed at security installations and claimed to have been carried out by Islamist militant groups.

South of the capital, military jets carried out three strikes on Daraya, about five kilometres from Damascus city centre, where government forces have been locked in heavy fighting with rebels for more than two weeks.

Syrian rebels captured a regime pilot yesterday after reportedly shooting down his fighter jet with a heat-seeking, surface-to-air missile over Daret Ezza, in the northern province of Aleppo.

Jaramana is home to members of Syria's Christian and Druze minorities, although many Sunni Muslims also live there.

Unlike other areas on the fringe of the capital, it has been broadly supportive of the country's president, Bashar Al Assad, so it has been spared the kind of assaults that have become common in districts siding with rebels.

For that reason, thousands of Syrians have sought refuge in Jaramana.

Regardless of political affiliation, families able to afford a move to the middle-class neighbourhood have been keen to relocate there.

Yesterday's bombings, while the most deadly, were not Jaramana's first. In August, a car bomb at a funeral killed 27 people and wounded 48 others. Less than a week later, a second car bomb exploded in the area, killing five and wounding 27.

Opposition activists say those attacks came after a pro-regime militia based in the district killed an anti-Assad dissident. Others in the Syrian opposition have offered a different explanation, accusing the security services of orchestrating the explosions, in an effort to spread fear and sow sectarian strife.

Two Iraqi journalists were murdered in Jaramana in July, while earlier in the year a police commander was assassinated at home in the neighbourhood.

Government officials say the attacks are part of a foreign-backed terrorist conspiracy against Syria.

While precise details of such events are difficult to determine, they point to a sectarianism that is in danger of spreading as Syria spirals deeper into a bloody conflict. More than 40,000 people, mainly civilians, have already been killed since the uprising began last March.

While pro and anti-regime factions do not break down along clean sectarian lines, Syria's minority communities, including Christians, Druze and Alawites, have tended to support Mr Al Assad - himself an Alawite, which is an offshoot of Shia Islam.

Opposition has been largely - although far from exclusively - drawn from the country's Sunni Muslim majority.

Exacerbating sectarian tensions, Sunni Arab states have openly sided with the rebels, while predominately Shiite Iran and the Lebanese Shia militant group Hizbollah have thrown their weight behind Syria's regime.

The tendency of minority groups to support Mr Al Assad has been reinforced by the presence of Sunni militants in the rebellion. A common fear among Syria's non-Sunni communities is that they will be forced to adopt Islam or face severe repression under a hard-line Islamist regime, if the present government is toppled.

Also yesterday a Nato team inspected possible sites for Patriot missile batteries in southern Turkey. Ankara has requested the weapons, designed to shoot down missiles and aircraft, to protect against a possible spill over the conflict from neighbouring Syria.

The move has been criticised by Iran and Russia, key allies to Damascus, as likely to provoke further escalation of tensions between Syria and Turkey, which has supported anti-Assad factions.

Jordan police said in a statement yesterday they had arrested five Jordanian men, including a terror convict, for planning to infiltrate into neighbouring Syria with automatic weapons.


* With additional reporting by the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse