Syria: Twin Bombing Kills Four Near Damascus as ISIS Abducts 90

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Children look through a window at a Syrian government's temporary housing center that houses displaced Syrian families who fled the violence in the Eastern Ghouta region on February 23, 2015 in Qudsaya, west of the capital Damascus. AFP/Louai Beshara

Published Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Two simultaneous suicide attacks killed four people and wounded 13 on Monday in southern Damascus near a shrine, Syria's state news agency SANA reported.

The attack came a couple of hours before reports said the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) abducted villagers in northern Syria.

SANA, quoting police, said the twin attacks took place at a security checkpoint near the shrine of Sayyida Zainab, a granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammad.

"A civilian car had stopped at the checkpoint... and a terrorist got out wearing an explosive vest which he detonated," SANA said, adding that seconds later a man who had remained in the car blew it up.

The Syrian government refers to all armed opposition as “terrorism.”

The British-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights said the bombing targeted a checkpoint manned by pro-regime fighters, just 10 kilometers east of Damascus and on the road to the international airport.

On February 1, a blast ripped through a bus carrying Lebanese pilgrims in the city, killing at least nine people in an attack claimed by al-Qaeda's Syrian branch. At the time, the bus had been heading to Sayyida Zeinab which is controlled by the Syrian army and allied fighters.

The monitor that tracks violence in Syria also reported that a rocket hit the Adra prison northeast of Damascus on Monday, killing four people and wounding 15 without specifying if the casualties were prisoners, guards or visitors.

More than 210,000 people have been killed in Syria since the beginning of the country's conflict, and half of Syria’s population of 22 million has been forced to flee their homes.

The conflict began as a peaceful revolt demanding democratic change, but evolved into a brutal war after government forces violently repressed demonstrators. Islamists have since poured into the country from all over the world, seeking to establish an “Islamic caliphate.”

ISIS abducts at least 90 from Christian villages

On Tuesday, the Observatory said that ISIS militants abducted at least 90 people from Assyrian Christian villages in northeastern Syria.

According to the monitor, the abductions took place after dawn raids in villages inhabited by the ancient Christian minority near the town of Tal Hermez, a mainly Assyrian town, in the western countryside of the city of al-Hasaka, a city mainly held by Kurdish forces.

Much of Hasaka is divided between Kurdish and ISIS control.

Several sources confirmed that they heard via wireless devices ISIS members saying that they detained “crusaders” — the jihadist group’s term for Christians — as other accounts reported that dozens of Assyrian people were kidnapped from the villages.

This part of Syria is strategically important in the fight against ISIS because it borders territory controlled by the group in Iraq, where last year the militant group committed atrocities against the Yazidi community.

ISIS has destroyed churches and Christian shrines in Syria, and demanded that Christians living under its rule pay a tax known as jizya.

Tal Tamer, a town near the Assyrian Christian villages where the abductions occurred, has witnessed heavy clashes between ISIS and the Kurdish YPG fighters, the Observatory said.

The latest ISIS offensive coincides with a push by Syrian Kurds in northeastern Syria near the Iraqi border since Sunday, seizing 19 villages as they advance following their recapture of the strategic border town of Kobane last month.

Several months after ISIS swept across Syria and Iraq, seizing swathes of territory and proclaiming a caliphate in parts of the two countries under its control, a US-led coalition of around 60 mainly Western and Arab states was formed to combat it.

New Zealand to send military trainers to Iraq

New Zealand, a member of the 62-nation coalition, announced it would send troops to Iraq on a 'behind-the-wire" non-combat mission to boost the local military's ability to fight ISIS.

Prime Minister John Key said Tuesday that about 140 troops would begin the mission in May after a request from the Iraqi government for international help to increase its military capability against the jihadists.

"We cannot, and should not, fight Iraq's battles for them — and actually Iraq doesn't want us to," he told parliament.

"Our military can, however, play a part in building the capability and capacity of the Iraqi forces so they can fight ISIL themselves," Key added, using an alternative acronym for ISIS.

The effect of the open-ended US-led air campaign remains the subject of debate, with critics pointing to ISIS’ advances and battlefield successes despite the raids.

Key flagged the mission late last year and it has been hotly debated in New Zealand, with all major opposition parties against it.

A Television New Zealand (TVNZ) opinion poll released this week found 48 percent of participants supported a military training mission, with 42 percent against and the rest undecided.

"Sending our forces to Iraq is not an easy decision but it is the right decision," Key said.

"I will not stand by while Jordanian pilots are burnt to death, while kids execute soldiers. This is the time to stand up and be counted."

He added that New Zealand troops would most likely work alongside their Australian counterparts at a military base in Taji, north of Baghdad, adding that the initial deployment was for nine months and the mission would not extend beyond two years.

Meanwhile, the leader of the main opposition Labor Party, Andrew Little, said New Zealand should concentrate on supplying humanitarian aid to Iraq, rather than conducting military training.

"We won't fix the (Iraqi) army, it is disorganized, it is broken, it is treacherous and it is corrupt," he told parliament.

Green Party leader Russel Norman criticized Key for refusing to put the planned mission to a parliamentary vote, saying he knew he would lose.

"Democracy, it seems, is a military export and is not for domestic consumption," Norman said.

New Zealand, part of the so-called "five eyes" intelligence network involving the United States, Britain, Australia and Canada, has faced pressure from allies to join the anti-ISIS effort.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond urged the country to make its military expertise available when he visited Auckland this month.

"Frankly we've got used to New Zealand being there alongside us, alongside the US, the UK, Australia, as part of the family," Hammond said.

Key said in January that New Zealand was expected to assist the military effort, adding "there has to be some contribution, it's the price of the club."

New Zealand did not participate in the US-led invasion of Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003, although it sent two 60-odd strong contingents of engineers to Basra in 2003-04 after a UN request for help in reconstruction efforts.

The country also sent a reconstruction team and small special forces contingent to join the NATO-led operation in Afghanistan in 2003, resulting in 10 New Zealander deaths during the decade-long deployment.

(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)

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