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August 19, 2014

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Attacks hit 2 major Syrian cities, kill 54 people

DAMASCUS, Syria — Two car bombs exploded in a pro-government neighborhood in the central Syrian city of Homs Tuesday, killing at least 40 people just hours after one of the deadliest mortar strikes in the heart of the capital, Damascus, killed 14, officials and state media said.

The attacks came a day after President Bashar Assad declared his candidacy for the June 3 presidential elections, a race he is likely to win amid a raging civil war that initially started as an uprising against his rule. Such attacks are common in Homs and Damascus, and there was no immediate indication that Tuesday's violence was directly related to Assad's announcement.

State news agency SANA said the attack in Homs struck in the Abbasiyeh neighborhood — a predominantly Christian and Alawite area. It said at least 40 people were killed and another 116 wounded. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll from the double car bombing at 37, including five children. It said more than 80 were wounded.

Such discrepancies in casualty figures are common in Syria in the immediate aftermath of attacks.

Homs has been an opposition stronghold since the beginning of the uprising against Assad that erupted in March 2011. The city, Syria's third largest, has been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in the civil war that followed the initially peaceful revolt. A devastating government siege has squeezed rebels in the last outpost in the Old City, and the remaining fighters there have lashed back with suicide car bombings on pro-Assad areas.

In Damascus, several mortar shells slammed into the predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Shaghour in the morning hours, killing 14 people and wounding 86, Syria's official SANA news agency and state TV reported. The Observatory said 17 people were killed.

It was one of the deadliest mortar attacks in central Damascus since the conflict began in March 2011.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks Tuesday.

Rebels fighting to oust Assad from power have frequently fired mortars into the capital from opposition-held suburbs, many of which have been under a crippling government blockade for months, with no food and medicine allowed to reach trapped civilians inside.

Armed opposition groups have also attacked Syria's cities with car bombs in the past months. An al-Qaida-linked group has previously claimed responsibility for several car bombs in the capital and other cities.

SANA blamed the attacks on terrorists — a term used by Assad's government for rebels.

Also Tuesday, the international chemical weapons watchdog said it will send a team to Syria to investigate recent allegations about the use of chlorine gas in the war.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said in a statement that the Syrian government has agreed to the mission, and will provide security in areas under its control. The OPCW the team is expected to depart for Syria soon.

Syrian opposition forces have accused the government of attacking rebel-held areas with chlorine gas several times in recent months. Syria denies the allegations.

A joint U.N.-OPCW mission is already in the process of eliminating Syria's chemical weapons stockpile. It has removed more than 90 percent of Syria's declared chemical stockpile.

While chlorine was first deployed militarily in World War I, it is no longer officially considered a warfare agent and was not among the chemicals declared by Syria when it joined the chemical weapons treaty.

Meanwhile, four more presidential hopefuls declared their candidacy in Syria's June 3 presidential election, bringing the total number of registered contenders to 11, state TV said.

Syria's opposition and its Western backers have criticized the decision to hold presidential elections while the country is engulfed in fighting.

Syria's Foreign Ministry rejected the criticism, saying the decision was "sovereign" and warned that "no foreign power will be allowed to intervene" in the process.

In Tehran, meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham welcomed the elections, saying the vote will be "an opportunity for peace and stability" in Syria.

Iran has backed Assad throughout the conflict, providing his government with millions of dollars in economic aid and military support through its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah.

"We think the election is a step closer to ending the crisis, stopping the war and support for peace and stability in Syria," Afkham said.

Surk reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Nasser Karimi contributed to this report from Tehran, Iran.

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