Damascus, Syria, Jul 25 (AP/UNB) - A series of suicide bombings and attacks that sparked fighting between local armed groups in southern Syria killed around 90 people Wednesday, a local health official and activists said, spreading mayhem in a province that has been relatively quiet throughout Syria's seven-year conflict. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the carnage.
The coordinated attacks — the worst in recent months — had all the hallmarks of IS even before it claimed responsibility and were reminiscent of the group's horrific assaults over the past years in Syria, already ravaged by civil war.
The bombings in the city of Sweida, including a motorcycle bomber who struck at a busy vegetable market, were apparently timed to coincide with attacks by a militant group linked to IS on a number of villages in the province, also called Sweida. It triggered deadly clashes between pro-government fighters and residents who picked up weapons to defend their hometowns on one side, and IS militants on the other.
Al-Ikhbariya state-run TV showed images from several locations in the province and its capital where the bombers blew themselves up. State-run news agency SANA said 38 people were killed in the suicide bombings and blamed the Islamic State group. The breakdown of the fatalities from the attacks was not immediately known.
Sweida health official Hassan Omar told The Associated Press by phone that 90 people were killed in the suicide blasts and subsequent fighting in Sweida, and that 80 people were wounded. The Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group put the overall death toll at more than 100.
The rare attacks in Sweida, populated mainly by Syria's minority Druze, came amid a government offensive elsewhere in the country's south. Government forces are battling the IS-linked group near the frontier with Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and near the border with Jordan. The group also has a small presence on the eastern edge of Sweida province.
IS has been largely defeated in Syria and Iraq, but still has pockets of territory it controls in eastern Syria and in the country's south.
The extremist group claimed responsibility for Wednesday's deadly attacks, boasting that it's "soldiers" killed more than 100 people in Sweida. In a statement posted on the group's social media channels, it said its militants carried out surprise attacks on government and security centers in Sweida, sparking clashes with Syrian troops and allied militias before detonating their explosive belts.
Since their offensive in June, Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces have retaken territories controlled by the rebels along the Golan Heights frontier and are now fighting militants in the country's southern tip.
The death toll, initially reported at 27, quickly climbed. The Observatory also reported a series of suicide blasts and the clashes in the province's countryside. It said a total of more than 100 were killed in the blasts and the fighting, including civilians, pro-government fighters and IS militants.
An activist-operated media platform on Facebook, Sweida News Network said a local militia was fighting the advancing IS-affiliated group and that at least 30 militiamen were killed in clashes with the militants.
Al-Ikhbariya said one of the attackers hit at a vegetable market in the city of Sweida just after 5 a.m., a busy time for the merchants at the start of their day.
The bomber drove through the market on a motorcycle and there detonated his explosives, the TV station said. A second attacker hit in another busy square in the city. Two other attackers blew themselves up as they were chased by security forces, the TV said.
The city of Sweida has largely been spared most of the violence that Syrian cities have witnessed in the years since the conflict started in 2011.
For the southern offensive, government forces redeployed troops from Sweida province last month to attack rebels and IS-affiliate militants in the nearby provinces of Daraa and Quneitra.
The government is now in control of Daraa but continues to battle the IS-affiliate militants in Quneitra.