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Suicide bombers strike Kurdish town in north Syria

MARTIAL TREZZINI/EPA

DAMASCUS — Three suicide bombers detonated their explosives belts in a local administration building in a Kurdish town in northeastern Syria Tuesday, killing at least five people, the state-run news agency and a Kurdish official said.

SANA said the blasts in the Hadaya hotel killed five people, but a Kurdish official at the scene said at least seven people died.

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The hotel in the center of the town of Qamishli has functioned as a municipality building, said Joan Mohammed, who spoke to the Associated Press by phone.

The area has been the scene of heavy battles recently between Kurdish gunmen and members of the Al Qaeda breakaway group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Mohammed said several people wearing explosive belts and firearms shot the guards dead outside the building, walked in, and hurled grenades before blowing themselves up.

One of them was caught before he detonated his belt and was being questioned.

He said the dead included two employees and two visitors.

‘The real number of those who were freed in exchange for the release of the nuns, who were kidnapped by armed terrorist gangs, is 25 persons.’

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He added that 15 people were wounded.

‘‘The building is in the center of the town and is usually very crowded,’’ said Mohammad, adding that Kurdish fighters in the area were ‘‘on high alert’’ following the attack.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but suspicion immediately fell on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Militants from the group have been fighting Kurdish gunmen for months in northern Syria in battles that left hundreds of people dead.

Kurds have carved out their own territory in the country’s northeast, declaring their own civil administration in areas under their control amid the chaos of the civil war.

But Kurdish militias continue to battle Islamic militant fighters in an offensive against jihadis that has accelerated in recent months.

Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, making up more than 10 percent of
the country’s 23 million people.

Also on Tuesday, the Syrian government acknowledged that it had freed women prisoners in exchange for 13 Greek Orthodox nuns who had been held by Al Qaeda-linked rebels.

But Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said the government freed only 25 prisoners and not the 150 reported by foreign mediators.

‘‘The real number of those who were freed in exchange for the release of the nuns, who were kidnapped by armed terrorist gangs, is 25 persons,’’ he told Syrian state TV.

Qatari and Lebanese officials, who were mediating between Damascus and the rebels holding the nuns, said previously that 150 women prisoners were released early Monday.

Damascus typically does not comment on releases in exchange for people held by rebels.

Zoubi’s remarks were a rare acknowledgment that President Bashar Assad’s government made any concessions to the rebels fighting to oust him from power.

The nuns were captured in December as opposition fighters overran a Christian village north of the capital.

The women were held by the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front rebel group in Yabroud near the Syrian border with Lebanon.

In recent weeks, the town has been the scene of fierce fighting as Syrian government troops, backed by Lebanon’s Hezbollah militants, try to oust the rebels from the border area.

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