SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) A bomb ripped through a bus carrying Lebanese Shiite pilgrims in Damascus Sunday, killing at least six people and wounding up to 20, in an attack linked to the ongoing war between Hezbollah and Islamist militants who have vowed to punish the party for its involvement in the Syrian war.
The cause of the rare attack that rocked a central district of the Syrian capital was unclear. While a Twitter account associated with the Nusra Front, Syria’s Al-Qaeda affiliate, claimed responsibility for the blast, saying a Saudi member of the group identified as Abu al-Ezz al-Ansari blew himself up inside the bus, Syrian media and the trip’s organizers said the blast was caused by an explosive device.
Syria’s state news agency SANA said the “terrorist bombing” involved 5 kilograms of explosives placed in the front of the bus and that authorities had defused a second device inside a bag which was found on the floor of the vehicle.
The bus had made its first stop close to the Sayyida Roqaya shrine and was heading toward the revered Sayyida Zeinab shrine in southeast Damascus when the attack occurred, according to Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV station.
The targeted bus, part of a four-vehicle convoy, carrying Lebanese pilgrims on regular weekly trips to Shiite shrines in Damascus, had Lebanese number plates and Syrian security services had cordoned off the area close to the bustling Souq al-Hamidiyeh in the Syrian capital. Rescue workers sifted through the rubble and cleared away pools of blood from the ground.
“I was thrown out of my seat by the force of the explosion and when I stood up I saw some passengers who fell martyrs,” Mohammad Musawi, one of the survivors who was slightly wounded in the blast, told Al-Manar TV upon returning to Beirut’s southern suburbs.
Musawi, in his early 30s, said he was sitting in the back in the bus when the explosion occurred.
Hezbollah and Lebanese leaders on both sides of the political divide condemned the blast. Prime Minister Tammam Salam denounced the explosion as “a barbaric act.”
“The crime committed against civilian Lebanese who were on a religious visit in Damascus is a condemned act by all humanitarian and moral criteria and has nothing to do with the noble Islamic religion with which the terrorists are disguised,” Salam said in a statement.
He called on the Lebanese to deny the “terrorists the chance to carry out their wicked strife schemes” by “displaying the highest level of national unity to confront the wave of black terrorism and shield the country’s security and stability.”
Hezbollah blamed takfiri groups, the party’s label of militant Islamist groups fighting to topple the regime in Syria, for the blast, saying they served Israel with their criminal action.
“Hezbollah condemns the terrorist blast that was executed by takfiri criminals in the Syrian capital, Damascus, and which targeted pilgrims to the granddaughter of the Messenger of God, Sayyida Roqaya, and led to the killing and wounding of a large number of pilgrims,” the party said in a statement.
Hezbollah said the explosion was a link in a chain of attacks that targeted pilgrims in Syria, civilians in Iraq and worshippers in Pakistan which had resulted in the killing of scores of people.
The bus carried Shiite pilgrims from Lebanon as part of a weekly tour trip to two religious sites in Damascus, organized by a Lebanese organization called “Admirers of Imam al-Hussein Campaign.”
“The vicious blast demonstrates the barbarian behavior of those terrorists, who with their criminal actions, are serving the Zionist entity and its project to dismember our [Muslim] nation and its peoples,” the Hezbollah statement said.
“The deeds of those criminals [jihadis] throughout the world – be it suicide attacks, beheadings or sacrileges – should serve as an incentive for all the wise and vibrant forces in the [Muslim] nation and in the world to gear efforts toward fighting and eradicating them after they have become a criminal tool in the hands of the Zionist entity,” it added.
Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora deplored the Damascus blast, calling it “a terrorist criminal act against humanity.”
The one “who planned [the blast] and carried it out is a criminal terrorist who serves the interests of the Syrian regime and the enemies of Syria, Islam and the Arabs,” Siniora, head of the Future bloc, said in a statement.
Siniora, a harsh critic of Hezbollah over its role in Syria, offered condolences to the Lebanese people and the families of the victims, saying the phenomenon of terrorism should be dealt with in a comprehensive manner in order to eradicate it along with its causes.
Syrian state television showed footage from the scene of the blast, with men in military uniforms picking through the wreckage of the blackened bus. Its front half was mostly blown off, leaving only the metal frame, and bags of belongings were strewn across the remaining seats.
TV footage showed the exterior parts of the bus soaked with pilgrims’ blood, with its blue curtains in shreds. The TV also showed images from inside a hospital where the wounded were treated, including a woman whose black robes had been lifted up, revealing a blood-soaked undershirt.
Fadi Kheireddine, an organizer in the group, said the bus was not struck by a suicide attack but by an explosive device planted toward the front end of the bus.
Speaking to Al-Manar and Al-Jadeed TV channels, Kheireddine said the bus carried around 52 pilgrims including the organization’s chief Ali Madi, who was “lightly wounded.”
Al-Manar TV identified the six victims as Mahdi Youssef al-Moqdad, Mohammad Ahmad al-Moqdad, Qassem Hatoum, Ali Abbas Balouq, Chadi Houmani and Mohammad Hussein Ayoub.
The agency had been making regular trips to Syria despite the civil war there, with groups leaving each weekend for a daylong visit to shrines revered by Shiites across the border.
On Sunday evening, 19 of the surviving pilgrims arrived by bus in Beirut’s southern suburbs, where they were warmly received by their parents and relatives. According to the organizers, 17 of those who returned to Beirut were in good health, while two of them had sustained light wounds and were admitted to hospital for treatment.
Al-Manar TV said the transfer of the dead bodies of the six martyrs from Syria to Lebanon has been postponed until Monday.
Parts of Damascus have remained relatively unscathed by the fighting raging in much of Syria since an uprising erupted in March 2011. But rebels regularly fire rockets into the capital from rear bases in the surrounding countryside and the city has also been hit by bombings.