More than 120 people were killed Monday in a wave of bombings claimed by the Islamic State group in northwestern Syria, the deadliest attacks yet in the regime’s coastal heartland.
Seven near-simultaneous explosions targeted bus stations, hospitals and other civilian sites in the seaside cities of Jableh and Tartus, which until now had been relatively insulated from Syria’s five-year civil war.
The unprecedented attacks on strongholds of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime came as IS faces increasing pressure in both Syria and Iraq, where Baghdad’s forces on Monday launched a major offensive to retake the jihadist-held city of Fallujah.
Seventy-three people were killed in Jableh and another 48 in Tartus to the south, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.
Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said they were “without a doubt the deadliest attacks” on the two cities since the start of the war.
IS claimed the blasts via its Amaq news agency, saying its fighters had attacked “Alawite gatherings” in Tartus and Jableh, referring to the minority sect from which the Assad clan hails.
IS is not known to have a presence in Syria’s coastal provinces, where its jihadist rival and Al-Qaeda’s local branch Al-Nusra Front is much more prominent.
But IS is notorious for using deadly sleeper cells to attack its enemies.
“I’m shocked, this is the first time I hear sounds like this,” said Mohsen Zayyoud, a 22-year-old university student in Jableh.
– ‘In the heart of the battle’ –
“I thought the war was over and that I could walk safely. But I was surprised to see that we’re still in the heart of the battle,” he said.
Jableh lies in Latakia province, while Tartus is the regional capital of the adjacent governorate of the same name.
The seaside cities have remained relatively secure even as Syria’s war has raged in Latakia province’s rural northeast and throughout the country.
Syrian state media also reported the attacks but gave a total of 78 dead, including 45 in Jableh and 33 in Tartus.
The attacks began at 9:00 am local time (0600 GMT) with three explosions at a busy bus station in Tartus, where regime ally Russia has long maintained a naval facility.
The Observatory said one car bomb detonated first, and as people began to flock to the site, two suicide bombers detonated explosive belts.
A police source in the city confirmed a car bomb had hit the entrance to the station and two suicide bombers attacked inside.
State television broadcast footage of the damaged station, where charred mini-buses lay on their sides while others were still ablaze.
Approximately fifteen minutes after the Tartus blasts, the explosions began in Jableh, 60 miles (40 kilometres) to the north along the coast.
– Call to relaunch peace talks –
The Observatory said a total of four blasts — one car bomb and three suicide attackers — targeted a bus station, a hospital, and a power station there.
A Facebook page sharing local news published footage from the bus station, where dozens of people gathered around fire trucks battling blazes in bombed-out and burning cars.
A police officer told AFP one suicide attacker detonated his explosives inside the emergency room of the state-run hospital there.
A car bomb also targeted the Asaad hospital in the city, he said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov condemned the attacks, saying they “demonstrate yet again how fragile the situation is in Syria and the need to take energetic measures to relaunch peace talks”.
“The rising tensions and terrorist activity in Syria can only spark great worry,” he told journalists.
World powers have struggled to rekindle UN-brokered peace negotiations which fizzled in April when Syria’s opposition walked away in frustration at stalling progress on the country’s dire humanitarian situation.
Syria’s conflict has evolved from a popular uprising to a multi-faceted war that has killed more than 270,000 people and forced millions from their homes.
IS seized control of large parts of Syria and Iraq in mid-2014, declaring an Islamic “caliphate” and spreading its influence.
The group has claimed deadly attacks in the West and throughout the Middle East, including twin bombings on military forces in Yemen’s second city of Aden on Monday that killed at least 41 people.