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Suicide bombers strike Kurdish town in north Syria

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    FILE - In this Monday, May 6, 2013, file photo, Syrian refugee Um Raad, 30, from Daraa, holds her 6 day-old son, Abdullah, at the Moroccan field hospital in Zaatari refugee camp near the Syrian border, in Mafraq, Jordan. Pregnant Syrian women say they never imagined giving birth outside their beloved homeland and inside a tough desert refugee camp across the border in Jordan where they battle heat, dust and to get enough drinking water. An international charity organization Save Children has warned Monday, March 10, 2014 of a health care disaster in Syria with newborns dying in hospital incubators during power cuts and children having their limbs amputated for lack of alternative treatment. (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon, File)

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    In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, a nun who was freed after being held by Syrian rebels, is greeted by a church official at the Syrian border town of Jdeidat Yabous, early Monday, March. 10, 2014. Rebels in Syria freed more than a dozen Greek Orthodox nuns on Monday, ending their three-month captivity in exchange for Syrian authorities releasing dozens of female prisoners. The release of the nuns and their helpers, 16 women in all, is a rare successful prisoner-exchange deal between Syrian government authorities and the rebels seeking to overthrow the rule of President Bashar Assad. (AP Photo/SANA)

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    FILE - In this Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013 file photo, veiled Syrian women wait with their children for vaccinations against polio at one of the Syrian refugee camps in the southern port city of Sidon, Lebanon. An international charity organization Save Children has warned Monday, March 10, 2014 of a health care disaster in Syria with newborns dying in hospital incubators during power cuts and children having their limbs amputated for lack of alternative treatment. (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari, File)

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    FILE - This Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013 file photo shows a Syrian girl weeping after receiving the measles vaccine from UNICEF nurses Nadine Houjairi, second right, and Genivieve Bashalani, right, at the U.N. refugee agency's registration center in Zahleh, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. An international charity organization Save Children has warned Monday, March 10, 2014 of a health care disaster in Syria with newborns dying in hospital incubators during power cuts and children having their limbs amputated for lack of alternative treatment. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, File)

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  • Mideast-Syria-489

    In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, a group of nuns, who were freed after being held by Syrian rebels, greet church officials at the Syrian border town of Jdeidat Yabous, early Monday, March. 10, 2014. Rebels in Syria freed more than a dozen Greek Orthodox nuns on Monday, ending their three-month captivity in exchange for Syrian authorities releasing dozens of female prisoners. The release of the nuns and their helpers, 16 women in all, is a rare successful prisoner-exchange deal between Syrian government authorities and the rebels seeking to overthrow the rule of President Bashar Assad. (AP Photo/SANA)

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    In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, a group of nuns who were freed after being held by rebels, greet church officials at the Syrian border town of Jdeidat Yabous, early Monday, March. 10, 2014. Rebels in Syria freed more than a dozen Greek Orthodox nuns on Monday, ending their three-month captivity in exchange for Syrian authorities releasing dozens of female prisoners. The release of the nuns and their helpers, 16 women in all, is a rare successful prisoner-exchange deal between Syrian government authorities and the rebels seeking to overthrow the rule of President Bashar Assad. (AP Photo/SANA)

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DAMASCUS — Three suicide bombers detonated their explosives belts in a local administration building in a Kurdish town in northeastern Syria today, 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, including four women.

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-Qaida breakaway group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Mohammed said several people wearing explosive belts and firearms shot dead the guards 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. 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.

Mohammed said one of the attackers appeared to be a woman.

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

Also today, the Syrian government acknowledged it had freed women prisoners in exchange for 13 Greek Orthodox nuns who had been held by al-Qaida-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. Al-Zoubi’s remarks were a rare acknowledgement 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-Qaida-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.

The Syrian conflict started as largely peaceful protests against Assad’s rule in March 2011. Since then it has deteriorated into a civil war in which more than 140,000 people have been killed, activists say. Millions have fled their homes and sought shelter in safer parts of their homeland or in neighboring states.

According to a UNICEF report released today, more than half of the 2 million Syrian refugees — about 1.2 million — are children. Nearly a half of those are under the age of five. Another 3 million children have been displaced inside Syria because of the fighting, the report said.

Children have been hit hard during the conflict, now entering its fourth year.

More than 10,000 children have been killed in the fighting, UNICEF said. Thousands have lost limbs, parents, teachers, schools, homes and virtually every aspect of their childhood, the report said.

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