There have been periodic bomb attacks in Damascus, but the stronghold of the regime of President Bashar Assad has been largely spared the destruction faced by other major cities in six years of civil war.
A roadside bomb detonated as a bus passed and a suicide bomber blew himself up in the Bab al Saghir area, which houses several Shiite mausoleums that draw pilgrims from around the world, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“There are also dozens of people wounded, some of them in a serious condition,” said Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman. State television said there were 40 dead and 120 wounded after “terrorists detonated two bombs.”
It broadcast footage of several white buses with their windows shattered, some of them heavily charred. Shoes, glasses and wheelchairs laid scattered on the ground covered in blood. Syrian Interior Minister Mohammad Shaar said the attack targeted “pilgrims of various Arab nationalities.”
The Iraqi foreign ministry said around 40 of its nationals were among the dead and 120 among the wounded.
There was no immediate claim for the attack. Shiite shrines are a frequent target of attack for extremists of Al Qaeda and the IS, not only in Syria but also in neighbouring Iraq.
The Sayeda Zeinab mausoleum to the south of Damascus, Syria’s most visited Shiite pilgrimage site, has been hit by several deadly bombings during the six-year-old civil war.
Twin suicide bombings in the high-security Kafr Sousa district of the capital in January killed ten persons, eight of them soldiers.
That attack was claimed by former Al Qaeda affiliate Fateh al Sham Front which said that it had targeted Russian military advisors working with the Syrian army.
It was widely seen as an attempt to disrupt UN-brokered peace talks that took place the following month which to the anger of Fateh al Sham were supported by its former Islamist rebel ally Ahrar al Sham. UN envoy Staffan de Mistura has called a new round of talks for March 23.
Fateh al Sham has been repeatedly bombed in its northwestern stronghold this year, not only by the Syrian army and its Russian ally but also by a US-led coalition battling IS in both Syria and Iraq.
The rift over the UN-brokered talks between the rebels and the government has also seen deadly clashes between the militants and their former Islamist rebel allies.
The two groups had together seized virtually all of the northwestern province of Idlib but are now vying for territorial control.