Suicide blast kills dozens as Syrians mark grim milestone

Last Updated Mar 15, 2017 3:27 PM EDT

Syrians marked the sixth anniversary on Wednesday of the civil war that has torn their country apart, left more than 400,000 dead and forced millions more from their homeland.

As they did, a suicide bomb tore through a judicial building in the capital city and a restaurant in Damascus -- adding at least 30 more names to the dizzying death toll that has mounted so quickly since 2011 that a precise count is impossible to come by.

The conflict began in March 2011 as a popular uprising against President Bashar Assad’s rule but quickly descended into a full-blown civil war. The chaos allowed al Qaeda and later the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to gain a foothold in the war-torn nation.

The U.N. health agency says over half of all hospitals and public health centers in Syria have closed or are partially functioning after six years of war, and nearly two-thirds of health-care workers have fled.

The head of the World Health Organization’s emergencies program, Peter Salama, says resources to help the health care system are “stretched to the limit,” citing security threats to health care workers and a lack of access to medicines and medical equipment.

Salama called for “systematic and unhindered access” for life-saving materials like vaccines and medical supplies “on this sad anniversary of the start of war in Syria and before more lives are lost.”

Syria’s Justice Minister said at least 31 people were killed and 60 more wounded Wednesday when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives’ vest inside the main judicial building in Damascus.

According to Damascus police chief Mohammad Kheir Ismail, the attacker struck in the early afternoon -- at 1:20 p.m. A man wearing a military uniform and carrying a shotgun and grenades arrived at the entrance to the palace, the police chief told state TV.

The guards stopped the man, took away his arms and asked to search him. At that point, the man hurled himself inside the building and detonated his explosives, the chief said.

Syria’s attorney general, Ahmad al-Sayed, confirmed that account to state TV, saying that when the security guards tried to arrest the man, he threw himself inside the palace and blew himself up.

“This is a dirty action as people who enter the palace are innocent,” he said, noting that the timing of the explosion was planned to kill the largest number of lawyers, judges and other people who were there at the time.

It was the latest in a spate of bombings and suicide attacks targeting government-controlled areas of Syria.

The bombing took place inside the Justice Palace, located near the famous and crowded Hamidiyeh market in the ancient capital city.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

The blast followed twin attacks on Saturday that killed at least 40 people in Damascus. That attack was claimed by the Syria’s al Qaeda branch, formerly known as the Nusra Front.

The official news agency, SANA, said the suicide explosion that struck a restaurant in Rabweh district of Damascus, led to multiple casualties, mostly women and children. The Ikhbariyeh TV channel said the attacker was being chased by security agents when he ran into a restaurant and detonated his explosives’ vest there.

At least 15 children and seven other civilians were killed in an airstrike on the rebel-held city of Idlib, earlier in the day, according to Civil Defense search-and-rescue group.

The group, also known as the White Helmets, said its rescuers worked all day to reach victims in the rubble. 

Syria’s U.N. ambassador, meanwhile, said he was concluding his participation in the latest round of talks with Russia and Iran in the Kazakh capital of Astana after two days of meetings without rebels.

Bashar Jaafari said discussions were “constructive” but only one official paper was produced, about demining Palmyra, the historic Syrian town that pro-government forces recaptured from ISIS two weeks ago.

Syrian rebels did not send any delegates to this third round of talks, accusing the government and Russia -- one of Damascus’ main backers -- of breaking cease-fire pledges and obligations to distribute humanitarian aid.

The Astana talks, brokered by Russia and Turkey, are centered on reaching a cease-fire in Syria and getting humanitarian relief to millions of suffering civilians. They run parallel to the U.N.-mediated political talks in Geneva aimed at ending Syria’s civil war.