Islamic State bombings in Damascus kill 60
BY TOM MILES AND JOHN IRISH Reuters GENEVA – Syria’s main opposition group met U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura for the first time on Sunday, but the talks ran straight into trouble after Islamic State bombers killed more than 60 people near the country’s holiest Shiite shrine. Representatives of the Saudibacked Higher Negotiation Committee (HNC) — which includes political and militant opponents of President Bashar al-Assad — warned they may yet walk away from the Geneva talks unless the suffering of civilians in the five-year conflict is eased. The head of the Syrian government delegation retorted that the blasts in Damascus, which the Interior Ministry blamed on a car bomb and two suicide bombers, merely confirmed the link between the opposition and terrorism — even though the Islamic State group has been excluded from the talks. The United Nations is aiming for six months of negotiations, first seeking a cease-fire, later working toward a political settlement to the civil war that has also killed over 250,000 people, driven more than 10 million from their homes and drawn in global powers. Only on Friday, the HNC said it would boycott the process, insisting it wanted an end to air strikes and sieges of Syrian towns before joining the negotiations. This forced de Mistura — who invited the government and opposition umbrella group for “proximity talks,” in which he would meet each side in separate rooms — to set the ball rolling with only the government delegation. Under intense pressure, notably from the United States, the HNC later relented and arrived in Geneva on Saturday. However, the group questioned how long the delegation would stay. “In view of the (Syrian) regime and its allies’ insistence in violating the rights of the Syrian people, the presence of the HNC delegation in Geneva would not have any justification and the HNC could pull its negotiating team out,” the group’s coordinator, Riad Hijab, said in an online statement. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Kimoon described the talks — the first in two years — as long overdue. “I urge all parties to put the people of Syria at the heart of their discussions, and above partisan interests,” he said on a visit to Ethiopia. A spokeswoman for de Mistura said the U.N. mediator had met the opposition delegation at its hotel, while his deputy Ramzi Ezzedine Ramzi visited the government delegates at theirs. The talks will continue on Monday. ISLAMIC STATE CLAIM The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for Sunday’s attacks in the Sayeda Zeinab district of Damascus, said a news agency that supports the militant group. It said two operations “hit the most important stronghold of Shiite militias in Damascus.” The Britain-based Observatory put the death toll at over 60, including 25 Shiite fighters.