At least 71 people have been killed in three blasts near a revered Shi’ite shrine outside the Syrian capital, Damascus, as talks to end five years of war got off to a difficult start in Geneva.
More than 100 people were also wounded on January 31 by a car bomb and two suicide bombers in the Sayyida Zeinab district where the Shi’ite shrine is located.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that, of the 71 people killed, 42 were fighters loyal to the Syrian government. The group said another 29 civilians, including five children, were killed.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the attacks were "clearly aimed to disrupt the attempts to start a political process" to end a conflict that has killed more than 260,000 people.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying two operations "hit the most important stronghold of Shi'ite militias in Damascus."
The Sayyida Zeinab shrine contains the grave of a granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad.
The attacks come as delegates from the Syrian government and opposition groups gathered in Geneva for UN-sponsored peace talks.
But Syria’s largest mainstream opposition group, the Higher Negotiation Committee (HNC), made clear on January 31 that it wants some positive developments on the ground before entering the negotiations.
HNC spokesman Salim al-Muslat said it wants to see that the international community is serious about addressing its demands that Damascus release women and children from government jails and allow aid into besieged areas.
HNC coordinator Riad Hijab said the group would walk out of the talks if the UN failed to end "regime violations."
The HNC said on January 29 it would boycott the talks. But under intense pressure from Saudi Arabia and the United States, the group later relented and its delegation arrived in Geneva on January 30.
The HNC team held on January 31 its first meeting in the Swiss city with UN’s special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, who said he was "optimistic and determined."
De Mistura has scheduled separate discussions with representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and opposition factions on February 1.
The head of the Damascus delegation, Bashar al-Jaafari, who is also Syria's UN ambassador, said the Syrian government "wants to put an end to the bloodshed," but added that the HNC was "not serious" about the peace talks.
"We are here for indirect talks without any preconditions," Jaafari told reporters.
The participation of the Saudi-backed HNC, whose delegation includes political and militant, is seen as key to the talks' success in ending the civil war.
The talks were originally scheduled to begin on January 25, but were delayed by opposition objections.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called on both sides to seize the opportunity to end the conflict.
He said there was "no military solution" to the crisis, which he warned could destroy what is left of Syria and leave the field open to recruiters from the Islamic State group.
Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier agreed by telephone to assess the Geneva talks at an international meeting in Munich on February 11.
The UN has not said who was invited to attend the talks, but the extremist Islamic State group, the Al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra Front, and Syria's largest Kurdish group -- the Democratic Union Party, or PYD – are not attending.
Turkey considers the PYD a terrorist organization and the HNC claims they are too close to the Syrian government.
The UN has said the aim of the Syrian peace negotiations would be six months of talks, first seeking a cease-fire, later working toward a political settlement to end the war that has driven more than 10 million from their homes and drawn in world powers.
A UN Security Council resolution passed last month demands that all sides allow immediate humanitarian aid to all besieged areas, release arbitrarily detained prisoners, and stop attacking civilian areas.
ith reporting by AFP, AP, dpa, and Reuters