DAMASCUS - At least 59 people were killed in attacks in Syria’s Damascus and Homs on Tuesday, as an international watchdog said it would probe alleged chlorine attacks in the country.
The parliament speaker meanwhile announced four new candidates had registered for presidential polls next month expected to return President Bashar al-Assad to power despite the civil war, which has left vast swathes of the country out of his control.
On Tuesday morning, a barrage of mortar shells fired by rebels hit a central neighbourhood in the capital, killing at least 14 people, state media reported. “Fourteen citizens were killed and 86 others wounded by terrorists who targeted the Shaghur neighbourhood in Damascus,” the SANA news agency said.
The attack hit a school of Islamic jurisprudence where some students are as young as 14, though it was unclear if children were among those killed.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights NGO put the toll in the attack at 17, adding that the figure could rise because several of the injured were in critical condition.
Hours later, a car bomb ripped through a crowded area of the country’s third city Homs, followed shortly afterwards by a rocket attack on the same neighbourhood, the provincial governor told AFP.
Talal Barazi said 45 people were killed in the double attack on the Zahra neighbourhood. He said 36 died in the car bomb blast and another nine in the rocket fire that followed. “The rocket fell about half an hour after the bombing on the same area, where there was a crowd of people” trying to help those wounded in the blast, he said.
The attack was one of the deadliest to hit the central city, where rebels control just a few remaining districts, most of them under a tight government siege.
Earlier this month, regime forces launched an attack on rebel areas in the city, where just a few hundred opposition fighters remain after most civilians were evacuated in a UN-led operation.
In the Hague, meanwhile, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said it would examine allegations that chlorine had been used in attacks in Syria.
The watchdog’s chief Ahmet Uzumcu announced “the creation of an OPCW mission to establish facts surrounding allegations of use of chlorine in Syria”, a statement said. The Syrian regime and rebels have blamed each other for the use of chlorine in at least one attack, in the rebel-held town of Kafr Zita in Hama province, with the opposition alleging the government has carried out several more.
The OPCW is already in Syria overseeing a deal under which Damascus is to turn over its chemical weapons arsenal by June 30.
On Sunday, the joint UN-OPCW mission in Damascus said 92.5 percent of the country’s chemical weapons material had been removed or destroyed.
Syria agreed to dismantle its chemical weapons programme last year, after Washington threatened military action in response to a sarin gas attack outside Damascus that killed up to 1,400 people. The regime denied carrying out the attack.
In Damascus, parliamentary speaker Mohamed al-Lahham said four new candidates had registered to participate in the country’s June 3 presidential election, bringing the total number of candidates, including Assad, to 11.
Ali Wanous, Azza al-Hallaq, Talea Salah Nasser and Samih Mikhael Moussa are all relative unknowns.
Syria’s constitution requires that candidates for the presidency be Muslim, but a source in the constitutional court confirmed that Moussa is Christian. “We receive all applications for presidential candidacy and transmit them to the parliament,” the source said.
“In the five days after the candidacy period ends, on May 5, we will examine the candidates to see if they meet all requirements. On May 6, we will announce who has met the conditions,” he added. Hallaq’s application brings the number of women competing in the vote to two.
The constitution contains no explicit prohibition on female candidates, but its phrasing implies only male candidates are permitted.
The elections will be Syria’s first multi-candidate presidential vote after a constitutional amendment did away with the previous referendum system. But with a brutal civil war raging and large areas of the country held by rebels, it remains unclear how the vote will be organised.
Nearly half of Syria’s residents have fled their homes, and the country’s electoral commission says those who left the country “illegally” will not be allowed to vote.
Electoral rules also prevent anyone who has lived outside Syria in the past decade from running, effectively excluding most prominent opposition figures, who live in exile.