Deadly blasts kill 20 in Syria ahead of peace negotiations


By Zeina Karam and Philip Issa ,AP

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Multiple bombings targeted a government-run security checkpoint in the central Syrian city of Homs on Tuesday, killing at least 20 people and wounding over a hundred amid intense political jockeying ahead of U.N.-backed peace talks scheduled to begin in Geneva Friday.

With just three days to go, the opposition is still undecided about whether it will attend the talks, throwing diplomatic efforts into question even as the U.N.’s special envoy to Syria was preparing to send out invitations.

The talks are meant to start a political process to end the conflict that began in 2011 as a largely peaceful uprising against Assad’s rule but escalated into an all-out war after a harsh state crackdown. The plan calls for cease-fires in parallel to the talks, a new constitution and elections in a year and a half.

The attack in Homs, which was claimed by the Islamic State group, came as government forces retook a strategic town from opposition fighters and militants in the south of the country.

Homs Governor Talal Barazi told the SANA news agency that the checkpoint was hit “first by a car bomb, which was then followed by a suicide bombing.”

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility, according to a report by the Aamaq news agency, which is affiliated with the extremist group.

Syrian state television broadcast footage of the aftermath of the Homs bombing, showing cars ablaze and extensive damage to shops and apartments around the site of the explosion in the Zahra neighborhood, which is inhabited mostly by members of President Bashar Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Islam.

The district has been a frequent target of bombings in the past few months.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group which relies on a network of informants across Syria for its news, said the death toll had climbed to 25, with 15 of the casualties being security personnel.

The Observatory quoted witnesses at the scene saying the first bomber attracted a crowd of security agents by shouting curses about the Homs governor, then blew his vehicle up.

Homs, which was once known as the “capital of the revolution,” is Syria’s third largest city and was one of the first to rise against the government in 2012. Government forces have since managed to expel most militants from the city and much of it has been destroyed. UN Humanitarians Plead on Behalf of Syrians U.N. humanitarian leaders are pleading with the warring parties in Syria to stop bombing schools, to allow aid workers access to the sick and to overcome a “political failure” to end an intractable conflict.

Leaders from several U.N. agencies including the World Health Organization and UNICEF on Tuesday described a worsening situation for health care and children as the U.N. special envoy for Syria prepares to host peace talks in Geneva among government and opposition leaders, for the first time in nearly two years.

U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Syria Yacoub El Hillo said “the suffering is immense” and said the message for envoys attending is: “Enough is enough.”