Shells hit major Shiite shrine near Damascus

Published on NewsOK Modified: July 19, 2013 at 12:44 pm •  Published: July 19, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Mortar shells struck near a major Shiite shrine outside Damascus on Friday, killing its caretaker in an attack that threatens to further escalate sectarian tensions in Syria's civil war, the government and activists said.

State-run news agency SANA said shells fired be rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad landed "in the vicinity" of the revered Sayida Zeinab shrine, killing Anas Roumani, the shrine's administrative director. Several people were wounded in the explosion, SANA said.

Protection of the ornate, golden-domed mosque has become a rallying cry for Shiite fighters backing Assad, raising the stakes in a conflict that is increasingly being fought along sectarian lines.

Lebanese fighters from the militant Shiite Hezbollah group as well as Shiite Iraqi fighters have joined Syrian forces in battling rebels in the suburb that is home to the shrine of Sayida Zeinab, the Prophet Muhammad's granddaughter. The area, about 16 kilometers (10 miles) south of Damascus, has been engulfed in an offensive by Assad's forces to recapture suburbs held by rebels and areas in the country's strategic heartland.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a wide network of activists on the ground, said the shells struck on the edge of shrine's complex, causing minor damage to its external wall.

Before Syria's civil war, now in its third year, the shrine attracted tens of thousands of Shiite pilgrims from around the world. Last year, rebels kidnapped Iranian pilgrims visiting the area, accusing them of being spies. The pilgrims were later released.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has called it "a duty" to protect the shrine, saying that if Syrian rebels destroyed it, that would ignite a sectarian war with no end.

Also Friday, pro-government Kurdish fighters battled al-Qaida-linked rebels in northeastern Syria, the latest in clashes that have killed more than 40 on both sides this week, activists said.

The Kurdish forces, which back Assad, have fought rebels from radical Islamic groups in the northeastern province of Hassakeh and the northern region of Aleppo for months now.

Fighting erupted again on Tuesday and the dead since then have included 15 Kurdish fighters of the pro-government Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, as well as 28 al-Qaida-linked fighters from the Jabhat al-Nusra or Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the Britain-based Observatory said.

The Kurdish militiamen captured the oil-rich area of Suweidiyeh and also the town of Ras al-Ayn near the border with Turkey, the Observatory said. It added that Friday's fighting focused mostly on towns and villages near Ras al-Ayn.

Kurds, the largest ethnic minority in Syria, make up more than 10 percent of the country's 23 million people and have seen their loyalties split in the conflict between pro- and anti-Assad groups. The minority is centered in the poor northeastern regions of Hassakeh and Qamishli, wedged in between the borders of Turkey and Iraq. The capital, Damascus, and Syria's largest city, Aleppo, also have several predominantly Kurdish neighborhoods.