World

Syria missile attack kills at least 45 in Damascus suburb

A missile barrage slammed into a suburb of Damascus, killing at least 45 people and wounding many others in the latest government attack on the rebel-held area, opposition activists said Friday.

U.S., Russia and other regional and world powers considering set up of new ceasefire plan

A man carries an injured child as another man gestures at a site hit by missiles fired by Syrian government forces on a busy marketplace in the Douma neighbourhood of Damascus, Syria Friday. (Bassam Khabieh/Reuters)

A missile barrage slammed into a crowded suburb of Damascus, killing at least 45 people and wounding many others in the latest government attack on the rebel-held area, opposition activists said Friday.

The attack came as an international conference aimed at ending the Syrian conflict got underway in Vienna, Austria. With 19 foreign ministers attending, including those from regional powerbrokers Iran and Saudi Arabia, there was cautious hope the meeting would achieve a small breakthrough.

"I am hopeful that we can find a way forward," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters, adding: "It is very difficult."

There were conflicting reports about the attack in the suburb of Douma. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committess group said government forces fired more than 11 missiles at a market.

The observatory said the attack killed 57 people, while the LCC said at least 40 perished. The different tolls could not immediately be reconciled.

Both organizations and a third Douma-based activist network reported that dozens more were wounded in the mid-morning attack. The third group, the Douma Revolution network, listed the names of 45 people killed.

Opposition group blames Russia

The Syrian National Council, the main Western-backed opposition group in exile, blamed Russian airstrikes for the "massacre" in Douma, which it said killed 55 civilians. It said it was the second deadly attack in the past 24 hours after Russian airstrikes bombed the main hospital in Douma a day earlier.

Amateur videos posted on the internet of Friday's attack showed gruesome images of young men sprawled on the ground of what appears to be a market. Pools of blood and flames could be seen as people cried for help.

The sprawling suburb of Douma is a frequent target of deadly government airstrikes and barrel bombs dropped from helicopters. It is home to the Jaysh al-Islam rebel group, also known as Islam Army, which has claimed responsibility in the past for firing rockets on Damascus, the seat of President Bashar Assad's presidency.

Douma has been held by anti-Assad rebels since the early days of Syria's conflict, which began in March 2011 with mostly peaceful protests but escalated into a full-scale civil war after a massive government crackdown. The conflict has claimed more than 250,000 lives and displaced up to a third of Syria's pre-war population.

In Vienna on Friday, the United States, Russia and other regional and world powers were considering a new plan to set up a ceasefire in Syria within the next four to six months, followed by the formation of a transition government featuring President Bashar Assad and opposition members, officials told The Associated Press.

How long Assad could remain in power under the transition was still unclear.

The Western officials said the United States and its partners supported the timetable as a first phase toward ending the 4½-year civil war that has led to the growing terrorist threat of the Islamic State and has sparked a refugee crisis throughout Europe. They said an agreement hadn't yet been reached, but that the 19 countries meeting in Vienna were considering the idea.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said that a follow-up meeting was expected as early as next week, with top diplomats possibly returning to Austria's capital.

Broadest gathering yet

The day of discussions included Iran for the first time as well as another key supporter of Assad, Russia, along with many of Washington's most influential Arab and European allies.

Assad's fate was at the centre of discussions. The U.S., Saudi Arabia and others have tempered their earlier calls for Assad's immediate ouster and now say he can remain in office for months as part of a transition if he agrees to resign at the end of the process. Russia and Iran are both providing Assad military assistance and say Syria's leadership shouldn't be dictated by outside forces.

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