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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Islamic State Claims Deadly Blasts near Damascus, Homs

by VOA News February 21, 2016

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday a 'provisional agreement' has been made with Russia for a ceasefire in Syria's five-year civil war, but violence continued unabated throughout the country, with scores of people killed in two separate attacks claimed by the Islamic State group.

Early estimates indicate a deadly double bombing in Homs early Sunday killed up to 60 people before a series of blasts later in the day hit Sayeda Zeinab, south of Damascus, killing at least 50 people. In late January, explosions near a Shi'ite shrine in the same area killed dozens more.

The latest explosions come after John Kerry said Sunday that fighting between the Syrian military and opposition groups could end within hours.

A more reserved statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry indicated Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke by phone with Kerry to discuss what it called 'the modalities for the cessation of hostilities in Syria.'

American and Russian diplomats will need to convince their allies in the country to sign on to the deal. Moscow backs forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a long-time U.S. foe, with military support.

Neither diplomat released details of the preliminary accord.

Rebel group 'willing'

The main rebel coalition in Syria has said it is willing to accept a temporary truce, but only if Russia calls a halt to its airstrikes and the Damascus government ends its offensive near the Syrian-Turkish border.

Russia has said it will not stop its airstrikes against what it calls terrorist targets in Syria, even if there is international agreement on a temporary truce, which diplomats have been calling a 'cessation of hostilities.'

The United States and others involved in trying to end the Syrian civil war say most Russian bombs are directed at rebels fighting the Syrian government, not at Islamic State terrorists.

U.S. officials have given a guarded account a conversation Kerry and Lavrov had Saturday, reviewing the work of two teams working in Geneva on the Syrian crisis – one on the urgent need to get humanitarian assistance to civilians trapped by the civil war in Syria, the other on a temporary truce intended to lead to a full and formal cease-fire.

Both sides agreed there has been some progress in delivering aid shipments to civilian neighborhoods under siege by Syrian government troops and their allies.

A U.S. statement added that humanitarian groups need immediate access to additional areas, and that future deliveries should be 'sustained and unimpeded.'

The Syrian rebel coalition known as the High Negotiations Committee met in Saudi Arabia Saturday and condemned Russia's military action supporting the Damascus government. The coalition said Russia has 'shown disdain for the international community and disregard for the lives of Syrians.'

Russia's airstrikes have been blamed for increasing the war's toll on Syrian civilians, prompting more of them to leave their homes as refugees and try to flee across the border into Turkey.

Russia's UN request rejected

Moscow has complained that Turkey is about to send ground forces into Syria, and it called for Security Council action to block that at an emergency meeting Friday.

Other Security Council members rejected Russia's draft resolution, and Turkey's U.N. ambassador said his country would only take such a direct role in Syria if it was backed by the United Nations.

Russia's proposal to the Security Council did not mention Turkey by name, but its intent was clear. It strongly condemned cross-border shelling into Syria and what Russia says is an unrestricted flow of 'terrorist' fighters and illegal weapons shipments into the country.

Syria's main opposition group agreed to the 'possibility' of a temporary truce Saturday while harshly criticizing Russia for failing to hold to a temporary agreed-upon cease-fire.

The High Negotiations Committee, a Saudi-backed coalition of Syrian opposition groups, issued a statement saying Russia had shown 'disdain for the international community and disregard for the lives of Syrians.' The groups agreed on the possibility of a deal if the United Nations could guarantee a cease-fire and the delivery of humanitarian aid.

The statement followed Russia's call for an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss its concerns that Turkey may be planning to send ground troops into Syria.

The Russian delegation presented a one-page draft resolution that would have condemned such a move. It also "strongly" condemned cross-border shelling, the flow of terrorist fighters and the illegal movement of weapons from Syria's "neighbors."

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