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Suicide bombers pound Damascus as Russian jets kill children in Idlib

Bombings and air strikes come on the sixth anniversary of the Syrian conflict, which began with anti-government protests in March 2011
The aftermath of an earlier attack that rocked the capital Damascus (AFP)

The sixth anniversary of the Syrian war saw deadly blasts in Damascus leaving more than 30 dead and Russian air strikes in Idlib claiming the lives of 20, including more than a dozen children.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the Damascus bombings, including a deadly strike on a court house, the second wave of deadly attacks in the capital in less than a week after twin bombings killed 74 people on Saturday.

The second attack, which struck on Wednesday afternoon, saw a suicide bomber detonate an explosives vest inside a restaurant in al-Ribwa, a western district of central Damascus.

The Syrian state news agency reported a number of casualties from the attack, though the exact death toll was not immediately known.

Meanwhile, the Russian airforce were accused of killing 14 children after firing rockets in the rebel-held area of Idlib, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor.  

The 14 children killed were among 20 people who were found dead after the suspected Russian air strike, said the monitor. 

The attacks come with rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad increasingly divided and dispirited after a series of battlefield setbacks.

Negotiations to end the conflict have meanwhile made little progress at talks in Kazakhstan.

Wednesday's first attack saw a suicide bomber rush inside the courthouse in central Damascus and blow himself up when police tried to prevent him from entering, state media reported.

Lebanon's al-Mayadeen news channel, close to the Syrian government, reported that the bomber had been wearing military dress, and had passed through the first security checks before being detected.

Syria's justice minister said 31 people had been killed and 60 injured in the blast.

An AFP correspondent at the scene in the Hamidiyeh neighbourhood said security forces had cordoned off the area, and roads leading to it were blocked as ambulances and firefighters rushed to the building.

"We were terrified because the sound of the explosion was enormous," a lawyer in the building during the attack told AFP.

"We took refuge in the library which is on a higher floor," the lawyer said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It was a bloody scene."

Graphic footage purporting to be from the scene showed the floor covered with blood, and strewn with the bodies of those killed.

Rebels under pressure 

Damascus had already been reeling from Saturday's bombings, which mainly killed Iraqi pilgrims who were in the city to visit Shia shrines.

That attack was claimed by former al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front, part of a rebel alliance that controls large parts of the northwestern Idlib province.

Rebel forces suffered a series of reversals during the sixth year of the war, including being forced from their onetime stronghold of east Aleppo in December.

The loss was an especially difficult blow to rebels who had imagined marching on Damascus in the early days of the civil war.

The conflict began in 2011 with peaceful demonstrations inspired by similar movements during the so-called "Arab Spring," calling on Assad to implement reforms.

They started on 15 March after the arrest and torture of a group of students from the southern province of Daraa accused of writing anti-Assad graffiti.

The protests were put down violently, prompting demonstrators to pick up weapons and causing the uprising to spiral into an increasingly complex and brutal civil war that has also drawn in regional and international players.

Rebel forces captured large parts of the country and several key cities. Islamic State emerged from the chaos to seize control of significant territory in Syria and neighbouring Iraq.

But a key turning point came in September 2015 when Russia began a military intervention in support of Assad's government, which has since regained much of the ground it lost.

Under pressure from air strikes by a US-led coalition, IS has also retreated to bastions like its de facto Syrian capital Raqqa.

'Savage horror'

The six years of conflict have killed more than 320,000 people, with over the half the country's population displaced by the conflict either internally or becoming refugees.

The war has also ravaged the country's infrastructure and set the economy back decades.

"When we began to demonstrate, I never thought it would come to this. We thought it would end in two, three months, a year at most," Abdallah al-Hussein, a 32-year-old footballer from the town of Saraqeb in Idlib province, told AFP.

"Whether this war is ended with weapons or peacefully doesn't matter. People want to live in peace."

The brutality of the war has provoked international outcry, with the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein this week describing the country as "a torture chamber, a place of savage horror and absolute injustice." 

But the international community has remained divided between a pro-Assad bloc led by Russia and Iran, and a pro-opposition bloc led by the United States, Turkey and Gulf nations, along with European countries.

In recent months the opposition's backers have dialled back their support, with Turkey now working with former rival Russia on peace talks and US President Donald Trump's administration showing little interest in the conflict or negotiations to end it.