Two suicide bombers ripped through al-Sinak market area in central Baghdad Saturday, shattering a relative lull in attacks in the capital and marring preparations for New Year celebrations.
The bombers attacked the al-Sinak area, killing at least 28 people and wounding 53, a police colonel said. An officer in the interior ministry and a hospital official confirmed the toll. “Many of the victims were people from the spare parts shops in the area, they were gathered near a cart selling breakfast when the explosions went off,” said Ibrahim Mohammed Ali, who owns a nearby shop. Torn clothes and mangled iron were strewn across the ground in pools of blood at the site of the wreckage near Rasheed street, one of the main thoroughfares in Baghdad, an AFP photographer said. “Twin terrorist attacks were carried out by suicide bombers in al-Sinak neighborhood,” an official from Baghdad operations command told AFP. The area is packed with shops, workshops and wholesale markets and usually teeming with delivery trucks and laborers unloading vans or wheeling carts around.
Daesh claims attack
Daesh later claimed responsibility for the attacks in a statement posted by its Aamaq news agency, confirming that the blasts came from a pair of suicide bombers.
Baghdad has been on high alert since the start on October 17 of an offensive, Iraq’s largest military operation in years, to retake the northern jihadist stronghold of Mosul. Daesh has tried to hit back with major diversionary attacks across the country but has had little success in Baghdad. Saturday’s twin bombings were the deadliest in the capital since the start of the Mosul offensive.
Huge crowds were expected to gather on Saturday evening in Baghdad’s streets to celebrate the New Year for only the second time since the lifting in 2015 of a years-old curfew. Last year revelers turned out for celebrations that lasted most of the night despite an already tense security backdrop.
Syrian rebel groups said on Saturday they would consider a ceasefire deal brokered by Russia and Turkey “null and void” if the Damascus government’s forces and their allies continued to violate it, while the UN Security Council is expected to vote on the ceasefire agreement Saturday.
UN Security Council to vote on the ceasefire agreement on Saturday
Russia, which supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has urged the United Nations to give its blessing to the fragile ceasefire, the third truce this year seeking to end nearly six years of war in Syria. The UN Security Council scheduled a vote for Saturday on a resolution that would endorse the ceasefire agreement in Syria brokered by Russia and Turkey, and reiterate support for a roadmap to peace that starts with a transitional government. The Russian-sponsored resolution also calls for “rapid, safe and unhindered” access to deliver humanitarian aid throughout the country. And it looks forward to a meeting in late January between the Syrian government and opposition in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana “as an important part of the Syrian-led political process facilitated by the United Nations.”
Clashes in Wadi Barada and Eastern Ghouta
Clashes and air strikes have persisted in some areas since the ceasefire began on Friday, though the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said on Saturday the truce was still largely holding. “Continued violations by the regime and bombardment and attempts to attack areas under the control of the revolutionary factions will make the agreement null and void,” a statement signed by a number of rebel groups said. It said government forces and their allies had been trying to press advances, particularly in Souq Wadi Barada and Eastern Ghouta.
In their statement, the rebels said it appeared the government and the opposition had signed two different versions of the ceasefire deal, one of which was missing “a number of key and essential points that are non-negotiable”, but did not say what those were. There has been confusion over which groups in the opposition are included in the ceasefire. Daesh is not included. The Syrian army said on Thursday the militant group formerly known as the Jabhat al-Nusra was not part of the truce. However, several rebel officials said the group, which has been renamed Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, was also included in the ceasefire deal.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a ceasefire between Syrian opposition groups and the Syrian government starting at midnight on Thursday. The parties were also prepared to start peace talks, Putin said, after Moscow, Iran and Turkey expressed readiness to broker a deal to settle the nearly six-year-old Syrian war.
The Syrian army announced a nationwide halt to fighting but said Islamic State and ex-Nusra Front militants and all groups linked to them would be excluded from the deal. It did not say which unnamed groups would be excluded. Several rebel officials told Reuters they had agreed to the ceasefire, due to come into effect at 2200 GMT on Thursday.
It was the third nationwide ceasefire agreed in Syria this year. The previous two, negotiated by Washington and Moscow, collapsed within weeks as warring sides accused each other of violations. The current deal does not involve the United States or United Nations. One rebel commander expressed optimism that this deal would hold: “This time I have confidence in its seriousness. There is new international input,” he said, without elaborating.
Talks on the latest truce picked up momentum after Russia, Iran and Turkey last week said they were ready to back a peace deal and adopted a declaration setting out principles that any agreement should adhere to.
Putin said opposition groups and the Syrian government had signed a number of documents, including the ceasefire, measures to monitor the truce, and a statement on readiness to start peace talks. “The agreements reached are, of course, fragile, need a special attention and involvement… But after all, this is a notable result of our joint work, efforts by the defense and foreign ministries, our partners in the regions,” Putin said. He also said Russia had agreed to reduce its military deployment in Syria, where its support has turned the tide in favor of President Bashar al-Assad in a war that has killed more than 300,000 and forced more than 11 million to flee their homes.
Turkey said it and Russia would guarantee the ceasefire. “With this agreement, parties have agreed to cease all armed attacks, including aerial, and have promised not to expand the areas they control against each other,” the Turkish foreign ministry said.
Three rebel officials told Reuters the deal excluded Islamic State, but did include the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham group, formerly al Qaeda’s Syria branch, the Nusra Front – appearing to contradict the Syrian army’s statement.
Russia’s defence ministry said the insurgent groups that signed the agreement included the powerful Islamist Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam, which operates primarily near Damascus, and Jabha Shamiya, one of the main groups that has operated in Aleppo.
The United States has been sidelined in recent negotiations and is not due to attend the next round of peace talks in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, a key Russian ally. Its exclusion reflects growing frustration from both Turkey and Russia over Washington’s policy on Syria, officials have said. However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the United States could join the peace process once President-elect Donald Trump takes office next month. Talks on the ceasefire reflect the complexity of Syria’s civil war, with an array of groups and foreign interests involved on all sides. Turkey and Russia support different sides in the war. Ankara has insisted on the departure of Assad, who is backed by Russia.
Likewise, demands that troops from the Lebanese Hezbollah movement leave Syria may not please Iran, another major supporter of Assad. Hezbollah troops have been fighting alongside Syrian government forces against rebels opposed to Assad. “All foreign fighters need to leave Syria. Hezbollah needs to return to Lebanon,” Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said.
Sources have told Reuters that, under an outline deal between the three countries, Syria could be divided into informal zones of regional power and Assad would remain president for at least a few years.
Meanwhile, disagreements remain between big powers. Ankara supports the Free Syrian Army, a loose alliance of rebel groups, some of which it is backing in operations in northern Syria designed to sweep Islamic State and Syrian Kurdish fighters from its southern border. The United States is backing the Syrian Kurdish YPG in the fight against Islamic State in Syria, a move that has infuriated Turkey, which sees the YPG as an extension of the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Ankara fears that advances by Kurdish fighters in Syria could inflame militants at home.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has accused the United States of supporting terrorism in Syria, including Islamic State, comments that Washington has dismissed as “ludicrous”. “We, as Turkey, have been calling on Western nations for some time to not distinguish between terrorist organizations and to be principled and consistent in their stance,” Erdogan said in a speech on Thursday. “Some countries, namely the United States, have come up with some excuses on their own and overtly supported the organisations that massacre innocent people in our region.”
Turkey and Russia have agreed to a proposal for a ceasefire in Syria, Turkish state-run news agency Anadolu reported on Wednesday quoting an unnamed Turkish official.
The plan is expected to be carried out in all areas where the Syrian army and the opposition are fighting, said the official, adding that under the plan, Ankara and Moscow will work for the ceasefire to come into force at midnight on Wednesday and that terrorist organizations will be excluded from the deal. According to Anadolu’s source the proposal is planned to be presented to the Syrian government for ‘consideration’ and if the cease-fire succeeds, political negotiations will start in the capital of Kazakhstan under Turkey and Russia’s guidance.
It was reported on Tuesday that a key sticking point in the Russian-Turkish negotiations is East Ghouta, an area near Damascus that the Syrian government wants to exclude from any ceasefire agreement. Anadolu report did not mention whether the agreement includes East Ghouta too.
Update 1 — 28/12/2016 12:30 GMT | Kremlin not aware of reported Moscow-Ankara agreement on Syrian ceasefire: spokesman
The Kremlin is not aware of any agreement between Russia and Turkey on a ceasefire in Syria, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday. “I cannot answer this question, I do not have enough information,” Peskov said, when asked to comment on Turkish media reports that Moscow and Ankara had reached a consensus on a new ceasefire in Syria.
Update 2 — 28/12/2016 13:15 GMT | UN’s de Mistura backs Syria initiative of Russia, Iran, Turkey: Russian Foreign Ministry
UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura supports efforts by Russia, Turkey and Iran to achieve a ceasefire in Syria and organize new Syrian peace talks in Kazakhstan, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said. In a telephone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, de Mistura backed the results of the meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran held in Moscow on December 20, the ministry said.
Syrian authorities have accused rebel fighters of executing 21 civilians, including women and children, at close range as they quit second city Aleppo last week, state media reported.
The bodies were found in two neighborhoods in east Aleppo, state news agency SANA said late Sunday. The head of Aleppo’s forensic unit Zaher Hajjo told SANA that “21 corpses of civilian victims, including five children and four women, killed by terrorist groups” were examined. “The bodies were found in prisons run by the terrorist groups in Sukkari and al-Kalasseh, and they were found to have been executed by gunshot at very close range,” Hajjo was quoted as saying.
Under a landmark deal brokered by regime ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey, 35,000 rebels and civilians left the former opposition stronghold of east Aleppo last week. Days before the evacuations began, the UN said it had received credible reports of at least 82 civilians, including 11 women and 13 children, being executed by pro-government forces in Aleppo. On Monday, the Russian defence ministry said “dozens of Syrians” were summarily executed in east Aleppo by rebels. “Mass graves containing dozens of Syrians who were summarily executed and subjected to savage torture have been discovered,” spokesman Igor Konachenkov said, according to Russian agencies. He said most had been killed by gunshot wounds to the head and many bodies “were not whole,” and that thorough investigations would force opposition backers in the West to “recognise their responsibility for the cruelty” of rebels.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that bodies had been found in east Aleppo’s streets, but could not specify how they had been killed.