Twin blasts kill 40, injure more than 100 near religious sites in Syria's capital

Twin bombs exploded near an ancient Damascus cemetery Saturday, killing at least 40 people, many of them Iraqis, in a rare attack on the Syrian capital’s iconic Old City, according to officials.

The Syrian state news agency, SANA, said two explosive devices were detonated near the Bab al-Saghir cemetery, an important pilgrimage site for Muslims that is home to several mausoleums frequented by Shiites.

There also were reports, however, that the attacks may have been conducted by a pair of suicide bombers wearing explosive vests.

The blasts happened near buses that were carrying Iraqi pilgrims, according to Lebanese broadcaster Al Mayadeen.

Ahmad Jamal, a spokesman for Iraq’s Foreign Ministry, said at least 40 Iraqis visiting the site had been killed and 120 wounded in what he called a “criminal terrorist attack.”

But the Syrian interior minister, Maj. Gen. Mohammad al-Shaar, said the victims included both visitors and passersby of various nationalities.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Islamic State as well as Al Qaeda’s former affiliate in Syria often have targeted sites revered by Shiites, who are considered by Sunni extremists to be apostates.

Video taken in the wake of the blast and shared on social media showed a number of buses, their sides perforated or shredded by shrapnel from the blasts. Blood-stained shoes were strewn on the detritus-filled street along with a discarded wheelchair.

The bombings represent a rare security lapse in Damascus’ Old City, which is guarded by a large number of checkpoints. Although mortar rounds lobbed by rebel forces near the capital remain a threat, the area has been largely spared the destruction seen in other parts of the capital and the country.

The conflict began as a largely peaceful uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s rule but since has devolved into an internecine proxy war that has killed hundreds of thousands, displaced millions more and ravaged the country.

Shiite-dominated paramilitary groups from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan have bolstered forces loyal to Assad in their nearly six-year fight against Sunni-dominated armed opposition groups.

Bulos is a special correspondent.

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UPDATES:

11:05 a.m.: This article was updated with Times staff reporting.

3:55 a.m.: This article was updated with reports from Syria State TV.

This article was originally published at 3:25 a.m.

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