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74 Shias killed in Damascus shrine attack

13 March, 2017

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DAMASCUS: The death toll from a double bomb attack targeting Shias visiting a pilgrimage site in Damascus has climbed to 74, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Sunday. Most of the dead in Saturday's attack were Iraqi Shias who were going to visit a cemetery near the Old City of Damascus.

The Hezbollah-run al-Manar TV station said it was carried out by two suicide bombers. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been supported in the country's war by Shia militias from countries including Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon.

Meanwhile, a Syrian alliance of militant groups known as Tahrir al Sham said on Sunday it was responsible for the two suicide attacks.

In a statement, the group said the attack targeted "Iranian militias" and pro-government defence militias in revenge for what it said was Iran's role in supporting President Bashar al Assad's "tyrannical rule", holding them responsible for "killing and displacing" Syrians.

On the other hand, President Bashar al Assad said the US forces in Syria were "invaders" and he had yet to see "anything concrete" emerge from US President Donald Trump's vow to prioritise the fight against Islamic State.

Assad has said he saw promise in Trump's statements emphasising the battle against the Islamic State in Syria, where US policy under President Barack Obama had backed some of the rebels fighting Assad and shunned him as an illegitimate leader.

"We haven't seen anything concrete yet regarding this rhetoric," Assad said in an interview with Chinese TV station Phoenix. "We have hopes that this administration in the United States is going to implement what we have heard," he said.

The United States is leading a coalition against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

In Syria, it is working with an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias. Their current focus is to encircle and ultimately capture Raqqa - Islamic State's base of operations in Syria.

This week, the US-led coalition announced that around 400 additional US forces had been deployed in Syria to help with the Raqqa campaign and to prevent any clash between Turkey and Washington-allied Syrian militias that Ankara sees as a threat.

Asked about a deployment of US forces near the northern city of Manbij, Assad said, "Any foreign troops coming to Syria without our invitation ... are invaders." "We don't think this is going to help".

Around 500 US forces are already in Syria in support of the campaign against the Islamic State.

Assad said that "in theory" he still saw scope for cooperation with Trump, though practically nothing had happened in this regard. He dismissed the US-backed military campaign against the Islamic State in Syria as "only a few raids", and said a more comprehensive approach was needed.

Assad noted that the Russian-backed Syrian army was now "very close" to Raqqa city after advancing to the western banks of the Euphrates River this week - a rapid gain that has brought it to the frontier of areas held by the US-backed forces.

He said Raqqa was "a priority for us", but indicated that there could also be a parallel army attack towards Deir al-Zor in the east, near the Iraqi border. Deir al-Zor province is almost completely controlled by the Islamic State, also known as the ISIS.

The Deir al-Zor region had been "used by ISIS as a route for logistics support between ISIS in Iraq and ISIS in Syria, so whether you attack the stronghold or you attack the route that ISIS uses, it (has) the same result", Assad said.

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