An al-Qa'ida-linked group claimed responsibility yesterday for twin blasts near holy shrines frequented by Shi'ites in the Syrian capital Damascus that killed at least 40 people as a suspected airstrike by the US-led coalition killed at least 17 in northern Syria, activists said.
The Levant Liberation Committee said in a statement that the attack was carried out by two of its suicide attackers, claiming that they targeted pro-Iranian and pro-government militiamen. It identified the suicide attackers as Abu Omar and Abu Aisha.
The Syrian government maintains that the attacks killed 40 people. However the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights increased its estimated death toll yesterday to 74. Conflicting casualty estimates are common in the aftermath of violence in Syria.
The attacks in Damascus show that Syrian militant groups can still strike deep inside the capital where security is tight, with scores of checkpoints that search cars and ask people for identity cards.
The claim of responsibility comes at a time when al-Qa'ida's branch in Syria known as the Fatah al-Sham Front is trying to market itself as the only effective force against President Assad and the main defender of the country's majority Sunnis.
Fatah al-Sham is opposed to peace talks between the opposition and the government held recently in Geneva and the Kazakh capital of Astana. Fatah al-Sham as well as the Isil group have been excluded from a cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey that went into effect on December 30.
Saturday's attack also wounded over a hundred, most of them Iraqis, according to Syrian and Iraqi officials. The al-Qa'ida-linked group said the blasts were a message to Iran - a main backer of Mr Assad.
"Iran and its militias have, from the start of the revolution, supported the tyrannical and criminal regime and have been killing and displacing our people," the statement said. "This is a message to Iran and its militias."
The Levant Liberation Committee is a coalition of several militant groups dominated by Fatah al-Sham.
The attacks came two weeks after members of the same group stormed two different security offices in the central city of Homs, killing and wounding scores of people, including a top Syrian security official.
In northern Syria, opposition activists said a suspected US-led coalition airstrike hit a school in the village of Kasrat just south of the city of Raqqa, killing at least 17 people. The airstrike came amid an offensive by US-backed Kurdish-led fighters against Isil in the northern province of Raqqa that is home to the extremists' de facto capital.
The Observatory said yesterday's early airstrike killed 19 people, including eight who fled violence in the nearby province of Aleppo. The activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently said the airstrike killed 17.