BEIRUT: A rocket strike near a Shia shrine in Damascus killed a custodian of the site yesterday, activists and residents said, in an attack that could inflame sectarian tensions in Syria’s 28-month-old conflict.
Syrian rebel fighters killed 12 members of a pro-regime militia during clashes overnight in the central city of Homs, and troops responded by shelling them yesterday, monitors said.
“Twelve members of the pro-regime People’s Committees were killed... during fighting with rebel forces on the outskirts of the Khaldiyeh neighbourhood,” the group said.
Opposition activists and residents said shrapnel killed Anas Romani, the respected caretaker of the gold-domed Sayyeda Zainab shrine in the capital’s southern suburbs, a renowned pilgrimage destination for Shias from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and beyond.
There were conflicting reports about damage to the shrine. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists across Syria, cited sources as saying the shrine’s blue-tiled sanctuary had been hit. But a local resident told Reuters the rockets landed outside the mosque.
The Syrian government accuses rebels of targeting Sayyeda Zainab, which is now protected by hundreds of Shi’ite militants from Iraq and the powerful Lebanese Hezbollah group.
They have been helping Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s forces battle rebels mostly from the Sunni Muslim majority, whom they accuse of threatening Shia symbols in Syria.
The rebels say they are only attacking pro-Assad forces in the area, though many in their ranks use sectarian rhetoric against Assad’s Shia supporters.
Syria’s uprising-turned-civil war has sectarian dimensions that risk spilling over into neighbouring Iraq and Lebanon, which have both suffered their own communal conflicts.
Several Syrian minorities have supported Assad, including his own Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia. They say they fear the rising Sunni Islamist current in the insurgency.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has said protecting Sayyeda Zainab is vital for his group, which now openly acknowledges its involvement on Syria’s battlefields, and has threatened “grave retribution” if any harm befalls the shrine.
The modern mosque houses what Shias believe is the tomb of Zainab, the grand-daughter of the Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him).