BEIRUT – A barrage of missiles slammed into an overcrowded suburb of the Syrian capital, killing at least 40 people on Friday, activists said, as world powers convened in Vienna for talks on how to resolve the country’s conflict.
The attack in the Damascus suburb of Douma – the latest on this rebel-held area that has seen hundreds of people killed over the past few years – was a stark reminder of the enormous civilian suffering inside Syria while negotiations over President Bashar Assad’s future take place abroad.
With 19 foreign ministers attending the meeting in Vienna, including those from regional powerbrokers Iran and Saudi Arabia, there was cautious hope that a small breakthrough would be achieved
“I am hopeful that we can find a way forward,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters, adding: “It is very difficult.”
There were conflicting reports about the attack in Douma. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees group said government forces fired more than 11 missiles at a market, killing at least 40 people.
Both organizations and a third Douma-based activist network were reporting dozens more wounded in the mid-morning attack.
The Syrian National Council, the main Western-backed opposition group in exile, blamed Russian airstrikes for the “massacre” in Douma, saying 55 civilians were killed. It said it was the second deadly attack in the past 24 hours after Russian airstrikes bombed the main Douma hospital the previous day.
The sprawling suburb is a frequent target of deadly government airstrikes and barrel bombs dropped from helicopters. It is home to the Jaysh al-Islam rebel group, also known as Islam Army, which has claimed responsibility in the past for firing rockets on Damascus, the seat of President Bashar Assad’s presidency.
In August, airstrikes on Douma were said to have killed around 100 people, provoking sharp rebuke from U.N. and other officials.
Douma has been held by anti-Assad rebels since the early days of Syria’s conflict, which began in March 2011 with mostly peaceful protests but escalated into a full-scale civil war after a massive government crackdown. The conflict has claimed more than 250,000 lives and displaced up to a third of Syria’s pre-war population.
Amateur videos posted on the Internet showed gruesome images of bodies strewn among wreckage and young men sprawled on the ground of what appears to be a market. Pools of blood and flames could be seen as people cried for help.
Meanwhile, at least 15 people, including four children, were killed in airstrikes Friday on the northern city of Aleppo, activists said. It was not clear whether the strikes were Russian or from Syrian government aircraft.
Russia, a strong ally of Assad, began airstrikes in Syria on Sept. 30, saying it is targeting mainly the Islamic State group. Most of Russian airstrikes, however, have centered on areas where IS does not have a strong presence.