Al Qaeda-linked group claims deadly Damascus attacks
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An al Qaeda-linked alliance of jihadist groups known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham said on Sunday it was responsible for a double suicide bomb attack in the Syrian capital Damascus that killed dozens of people.
In a statement released Sunday, the Levant Liberation Committee said the attacks were a message to Tehran. "Iran and its militias have, from the start of the revolution, supported the tyrannical and criminal regime and have been killing and displacing our people," the statement said. "This is a message to Iran and its militias that the right will not go wasted."
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group, said most of those killed in the attack were Iraqi Shiite pilgrims who were visiting a cemetery near the Old City of Damascus.
The Syrian government maintained that the attacks killed 40 people. However the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights increased its estimated death toll on Sunday to 74. Conflicting casualty estimates are common in the aftermath of violence in Syria.
Sowing sectarian divides
The attacks in Damascus show that Syrian militant groups can still strike deep inside the capital where security is tight, with scores of checkpoints where cars are searched and identity cards are checked.
The claim of responsibility comes at a time when al Qaeda's branch in Syria, known as the Fatah al-Sham Front, is trying to market itself as the only effective force against Assad and the main defender of the country's majority Sunnis.
Fatah al-Sham is opposed to peace talks between the opposition and the government that have taken place recently in Geneva and the Kazakh capital of Astana. Fatah al-Sham as well as the Islamic State (IS) group have been excluded from a cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey that went into effect on Dec. 30.
The Levant Liberation Committee is a coalition of several militant groups dominated by Fatah al-Sham.
The attacks came two weeks after members of the same group stormed two different security offices in the central city of Homs, killing and wounding scores of people, including a top Syrian security official.
Deadly airstrike near Raqqa
In northern Syria, opposition activists said a suspected US-led coalition airstrike hit a school in the village of Kasrat just south of the city of Raqqa, killing at least 17 people. The airstrike came amid an offensive by US-backed Kurdish-led fighters against the IS group in the northern province of Raqqa, the jihadist group's de facto capital.
The Observatory said Sunday's early airstrike killed 19 people, including eight who fled violence in the nearby province of Aleppo. The activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently said the airstrike killed 17.
On Thursday, at least 20 civilians, including some children, were killed in suspected US-coalition airstrikes on a village east of Raqqa.
Calls to postpone Astana talks
Also Sunday, two Syrian opposition figures said the Syrian armed opposition will not take part in a meeting planned and sponsored by Russia and Turkey in the Kazakh capital of Astana on Tuesday, saying the government has not been abiding by a cease-fire.
Ahmad Ramadan told The Associated Press via a text message that rebels will not go because the Syrian government and Russia are working on displacing people from the neighborhood of al-Waer, the only rebel-held area in the central city of Homs.
Rebel legal adviser and spokesman Osama Abo Zayd wrote on his Twitter account that "the crimes by the regime and Iran, and the shelling and airstrikes of Russia and its sponsoring of displacement in al-Waer has totally severed the opportunities of our participation in Astana."
The announcement came a day after Syria's armed opposition groups called for postponing the meeting in Astana, saying that violations of a Russia-backed cease-fire have persisted.
(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)