Car bomb kills at least 30 north of Syrian capital

By Ryan Lucas

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Sept. 27 2013 12:03 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013, file photo, released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian citizens gather at the scene of a car bomb exploded in the residential al-Tadhamon neighborhood in Damascus, Syria.

SANA, File, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

BEIRUT — A car bomb exploded near a mosque north of the Syrian capital as worshippers emerged from Friday prayers, killing at least 30 people, causing part of the building's roof to collapse and littering the street with smoldering debris, activists said.

In Damascus, the United Nations said its team of weapons experts currently in Syria will investigate seven sites of alleged chemical attacks in the country, four more than previously known. The announcement came a day after the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council agreed on a resolution to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons.

Friday's blast, which struck outside the al-Sahel mosque in the town of Rankous, also wounded dozens of people, most of them civilians, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. It put the death toll at 30, and said it was not clear whether the mosque was the intended target.

Mohammed Saeed, an activist in the eastern Damascus suburb of Douma, and the Observatory's director Rami Abdul-Rahman both said the town is held neither by the rebels nor by the regime in Syria's civil war. Abdul-Rahman said residents have an agreement with the rebels not to bring weapons into Rankous in order to avoid government shelling.

Saeed, who is in contact with activists in Rankous, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Damascus, said residents held funerals for some of those killed in the bombing in line with Islamic tradition that calls for prompt burial. As people marched in one funeral, several rockets fired by government troops fell nearby, wounding some of the mourners, he said.

Car bombs, shelling and airstrikes have become common in the civil war, which has killed more than 100,000 people and driven another 7 million — around a third of the country's pre-war population — from their homes since March 2011. The conflict has heavily damaged cities and Syria's social fabric as it has taken on increasingly dark sectarian overtones, pitting a primarily Sunni Muslim rebel movement against a regime dominated by President Bashar Assad's Alawite sect — an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Amateur video posted online showed civilians and men with guns sorting through the smoldering wreckage of the bombing. Smoke still hung over the blast site, while a portion of the mosque's roof had collapsed. The video's narrator accused Assad's regime of carrying out the bombing and used a pejorative term for Shiites.

The video appeared genuine and corresponds to other Associated Press reporting of the events depicted.

The fighting has shown no sign of abating and could complicate the mission of U.N. chemical weapons investigators who are back in Syria this week.

The U.N. office in Damascus said the team, which returned Wednesday, will visit seven sites that have been found to "warrant investigation" and are continuing to work "on a comprehensive report that it hopes will be ready by late October."

The team initially visited Syria last month to investigate three alleged chemical attacks this year. But just days into the visit, the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Ghouta was hit by a chemical attack, and the inspectors turned their attention to that case. The inquiry determined that the nerve agent sarin was used in the Aug. 21 attack, but it did not assess who was behind it.

Among the new sites the team plans to investigate is the northern town of Khan al-Assal, outside the city of Aleppo. Assad's government and Syrian rebels have traded accusations of chemical weapons use in a March 19 attack.

The team also plans to look into allegations of chemical agents being used in the Damascus neighborhood of Jobar, the northern town of Saraqeb, the Sheik Maksoud neighborhood of Aleppo and three other sites.

The visit coincides with a sharp uptick in fighting in northern Syria between al-Qaida's Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and more moderate rebel factions associated with the Free Syrian Army, the loose-knit collection of rebel brigades backed by the U.S. and its allies.

The infighting, which saw ISIL expel more mainstream rebels from areas near the Turkish border last week, has threatened to further divide opposition forces already outgunned by Assad's troops.

The Observatory said ISIL has given the FSA-affiliated Northern Storm Brigade until Saturday evening to hand over their weapons and "repent." In turn, the Northern Storm Brigade accused ISIL fighters of abandoning the fight against Assad, and promised "an all-out war in Aleppo and its suburbs" against the al-Qaida-linked fighters.

Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.

Follow Ryan Lucas on Twitter at www.twitter.com/relucasz

Follow Bassem Mroue at www.twitter.com/bmroue

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