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Suicide bombers strike Kurdish town in north Syria

Published: Tuesday, March 11, 2014 11:00 a.m. CDT
Caption
In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, a nun who was freed after being held by Syrian rebels, is greeted by a church official at the Syrian border town of Jdeidat Yabous, early Monday, March. 10, 2014. (AP Photo/SANA)

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Three suicide bombers detonated their explosives belts in a local administration building in a Kurdish town in northeastern Syria Tuesday, killing at least five people, the state-run news agency and a Kurdish official said.

SANA said the blasts in the Hadaya hotel killed five people, but a Kurdish official at the scene said at least seven people died, including four women.

The hotel in the center of the town of Qamishli has functioned as a municipality building, said Joan Mohammed, who spoke to The Associated Press by phone. The area has been the scene of heavy battles recently between Kurdish gunmen and members of the al-Qaida breakaway group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Mohammed said several people wearing explosive belts and firearms shot dead the guards outside the building, walked in and hurled grenades before blowing themselves up. One of them was caught before he detonated his belt and was being questioned.

He said the dead included two employees and two visitors. He added that 15 people were wounded.

"The building is in the center of the town and is usually very crowded," said Mohammad, adding that Kurdish fighters in the area were "on high alert" following the attack.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but suspicion immediately fell on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Militants from the group have been fighting Kurdish gunmen for months in northern Syria in battles that left hundreds of people dead.

Kurds have carved out their own territory in the country's northeast, declaring their own civil administration in areas under their control amid the chaos of the civil war. But Kurdish militias continue to battle Islamic militant fighters in an offensive against jihadis that has accelerated in recent months.

Mohammed said one of the attackers appeared to be a woman.

Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, making up more than 10 percent of the country's 23 million people.

Also on Tuesday, the Syrian government acknowledged it had freed women prisoners in exchange for 13 Greek Orthodox nuns who had been held by al-Qaida-linked rebels. But Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said the government freed only 25 prisoners and not the 150 reported by foreign mediators.

"The real number of those who were freed in exchange for the release of the nuns, who were kidnapped by armed terrorist gangs, is 25 persons," he told Syrian state TV.

Qatari and Lebanese officials, who were mediating between Damascus and the rebels holding the nuns, said previously that 150 women prisoners were released early Monday.

Damascus typically does not comment on releases in exchange for people held by rebels. Al-Zoubi's remarks were a rare acknowledgement that President Bashar Assad's government made any concessions to the rebels fighting to oust him from power.

The nuns were captured in December as opposition fighters overran a Christian village north of the capital.

The women were held by the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front rebel group in Yabroud near the Syrian border with Lebanon. In recent weeks, the town has been the scene of fierce fighting as Syrian government troops, backed by Lebanon's Hezbollah militants, try to oust the rebels from the border area.

The Syrian conflict started as largely peaceful protests against Assad's rule in March 2011. Since then it has deteriorated into a civil war in which more than 140,000 people have been killed, activists say. Millions have fled their homes and sought shelter in safer parts of their homeland or in neighboring states.

According to a UNICEF report released on Tuesday, more than half of the 2 million Syrian refugees — about 1.2 million — are children. Nearly a half of those are under the age of five. Another 3 million children have been displaced inside Syria because of the fighting, the report said.

Children have been hit hard during the conflict, now entering its fourth year.

More than 10,000 children have been killed in the fighting, UNICEF said. Thousands have lost limbs, parents, teachers, schools, homes and virtually every aspect of their childhood, the report said.

____

Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Barbara Surk contributed to this report.

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