Double bombing kills at least 46 in Homs as Kerry pushes ceasefire

Friday 19/02/2016
Homs has regularly been targeted

BEIRUT - A double bombing killed at least 46 people in Syria's Homs on Sunday, as US Secretary of State John Kerry said a provisional deal had been reached on the terms of a ceasefire.

World powers have been pushing for a break in fighting that was meant to go into effect by Friday, but have struggled to agree how to implement it.

Violence has intensified on the ground, with double car bomb blasts hitting the Al-Zahraa neighbourhood of the central city of Homs on Sunday morning.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 46 people had been killed and dozens wounded in the explosions.

State television broadcast footage from the scene, showing emergency workers carrying a charred body on a stretcher past shops shorn of their fronts and mangled cars and minibuses.

Homs city has regularly been targeted in bomb attacks, including last month when a double bombing claimed by the Islamic State group killed 22 people in Al-Zahraa neighbourhood.

The district's residents are mostly Alawites, the minority sect of Syria's ruling clan, including President Bashar al-Assad.

Most of those killed have been civilians.

Among the deadliest attacks to hit Homs was in October 2014, when blasts at a school in the Akrameh district killed 48 children and four adults, which prompted protests calling for better security.

The bombings came as international powers worked for a cessation of hostilities, despite missing a proposed Friday start date.

On Sunday, Kerry said he had spoken earlier with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov and agreed an initial basis on how to implement a ceasefire.

"We have reached a provisional agreement, in principle, on the terms of the cessation of hostilities that could begin in the coming days," Kerry said in Amman.

"It is not yet done and I anticipate that our presidents, President (Barack) Obama and President (Vladimir) Putin, may well speak somewhere in the next days or so in order to try to complete this task," he added.

World powers proposed the truce just over a week ago as part of a plan that also included expanded humanitarian access, in a bid to pave the way for the resumption of new peace talks.

The talks, which collapsed earlier this month in Geneva, were scheduled to resume on February 25, but the UN's envoy on Syria has already acknowledged that date is no longer "realistically" possible.

On Saturday, a key opposition umbrella group, the High Negotiations Committee, said it would agree a temporary truce only if regime backers halted fire.

HNC chief Riad Hijab said any ceasefire must be reached "with international mediation and with guarantees obliging Russia, Iran and their sectarian militias and mercenaries to stop fighting".

"There will not be a truce unless fighting stops simultaneously on the part of all the belligerents, sieges are lifted, humanitarian aid is delivered to those in need, and prisoners, particularly women and children, are released," Hijab said.

Assad meanwhile told Spain's El Pais newspaper that he was "ready" for a ceasefire, but said it should not be exploited by "terrorists."

Regime backer Moscow is a key architect of the proposed ceasefire, but has shown little sign so far that it plans to rein in the air campaign it began in September in support of Assad's government.

On Saturday, it said it would continue "to provide assistance and help to the armed forces of Syria in their offensive actions against terrorists".

Tensions meanwhile have been rising between Russia and opposition-backer Turkey, which has been alarmed by both the regime's Russian-backed advances and a major operation by Kurdish-led forces in Aleppo province.

The Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) and their Arab partners have in recent days seized key territory from rebel forces in Aleppo, prompting Turkish anger and shelling of their positions.

Ankara considers the YPG an affiliate of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, which has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.

It fears the Kurdish advances are intended to link up areas in north and northeast Syria to create a contiguous semi-autonomous Kurdish zone along the Syrian-Turkish border.

On Sunday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan defended his country's fight against the YPG as "legitimate defence" after international calls for Ankara to halt its military action in Syria.