- As Assad allies say US attack on Syria air base crosses ‘red lines’
Two blasts targeting Egyptian churches on Palm Sunday killed at least 38 people and wounded more than 100, according to Health Ministry officials.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi on Sunday evening declared a three-month state of emergency after the blasts rocked two churches, killing dozens.
The first attack hit the St. George Church, packed with worshipers in the Nile Delta town of Tanta, north of the Egyptian capital, killing at least 27 people and wounding 78 others, authorities said.
Hours later a second blast went off in front of St Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, killing some 11 and injuring 35. A local police chief was killed in this explosion in the coastal city, the Ministry of Interior told Egyptian television.
Among the dead were two male members and one female member of the church’s security personnel, authorities said.
Global security firm and NBC News consultant Flashpoint Intelligence said that ISIS-affiliated Amaq Media said the terror group carried out the two church attacks. NBC News has not been able to authenticate this claim.
A local ISIS affiliate claimed a suicide bombing at a church in Cairo in December that killed around 30 people, mostly women, as well as a string of killings in the restive Sinai Peninsula that caused hundreds of Christians to flee to safer areas of the country.
Alexandria is the historic seat of the Coptic Orthodox Pope, who currently resides in Cairo. Eyewitnesses of the second bombing said the explosion occurred just after Pope Tawadros II left the cathedral.The state news agency confirmed that the Pope is safe.
Witnesses told NBC News that people were leaving the cathedral when a suicide bomber was stopped at a checkpoint by a police officer. The man then reportedly detonated his explosives, killing the officer who stopped him, as well as others.
In the meantime, a joint command centre made up of the forces of Russia, Iran and militias supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Sunday said the U.S. strike on a Syrian air base on Friday crossed “red lines” and it would respond to any new aggression and increase its support for its ally.
The United States fired dozens of cruise missiles at a Syrian air base on Friday from which it said a deadly chemical weapons attack had been launched earlier in the week, escalating the U.S. role in Syria and drawing criticism from Assad`s allies including Russia and Iran.
“What America waged in an aggression on Syria is a crossing of red lines. From now on we will respond with force to any aggressor or any breach of red lines from whoever it is and America knows our ability to respond well,” said the statement published by the group on media outlet Ilam al Harbi (War Media).
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, meanwhile, blamed Russian inaction for helping fuel the chemical weapons attack it had reacted to, saying Moscow had failed to carry out a 2013 agreement to secure and destroy chemical weapons in Syria.
He said the United States expected Russia to take a tougher stance against Syria by rethinking its alliance with Assad because “every time one of these horrific attacks occurs, it draws Russia closer into some level of responsibility.”
Rebels and residents in northwestern Idlib province said jets believed to be Russian conducted eight raids on Sunday on the town of Khan Sheikhoun where the chemical attack took place but no casualties were reported.
Raids hit several other rebel-held towns including Saraqeb and Sarmin in the province, where the rebels and activists said incendiary bombs were dropped.
The death toll from an air strike on Saturday on the rebel-held town of Urum al-Joz in Idlib province rose to 19 people, including six children, activists and residents said.
In the southern city of Daraa, jets believed to be Russian escalated strikes on Free Syrian Army (FSA) and jihadist groups on Saturday and Sunday in an attempt to roll back their gains in the Manshiya district where battles have been raging for nearly two months.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran`s Hassan Rouhani said in a phone call that aggressive U.S. actions against Syria were not permissible and violated international law, the Kremlin said on Sunday.
The two leaders also called for an objective investigation into an incident involving chemical weapons in Syria`s Idlib and said they were ready to deepen cooperation to fight terrorism, the Kremlin said in a statement on its website.
Syrian army forces had been losing ground across the country until Russia intervened militarily in September 2015, propping up Assad and protecting its own interests in the region.
Assad has also drawn heavily on foreign Shi`ite militias sponsored by Iran, led by Lebanon`s Hezbollah group, for his most important gains since the Russian intervention.
The joint command centre also said the presence of U.S troops in northern Syria where Washington has hundreds of special forces helping the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to oust Islamic State was “illegal” and that Washington had a long-term plan to occupy the area.
The regional alliance said the U.S. cruise missile strikes on a Syrian base which Washington said was involved in a chemical attack that killed dozens of civilians would not deter their forces from “liberating” all of Syrian territory.
In Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the U.S. missile strike was a “a strategic error, and a repeat of the mistakes of the past,” the state news agency IRNA reported.
“The Islamic Republic has shown that … it does not back off and its people and officials … do not retreat in the face of threats,” said Khamenei.
Many Syrians opposed to Assad`s rule consider Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iranian-backed troops as occupiers seeking to drive out mainly Sunni Syrians from the areas they live in. They hold Iran and its allies responsible for the displacement of millions outside the country.
They also see Russia as a foreign occupier whose relentless aerial bombardment of rebel-held areas has led to thousands of civilian casualties. Some accuse Moscow of applying a “scorched-earth policy” that targets hospitals, schools and residential areas more than frontlines to break the resolve of the anti-Assad insurgency.
NBC with additional report from Zee