Twin suicide blasts kill 27
Damascus - Two suicide bombers have detonated cars packed with explosives in near-simultaneous attacks on heavily guarded intelligence and security buildings in the Syrian capital Damascus, killing at least 27 people.
There have been a string of large-scale bombings against the regime in its stronghold of Damascus that suggest a dangerous, wild-card element in the year-old anti-government revolt. The regime blamed the opposition, which denied having a role or the capabilities to carry out such a sophisticated attack. And after other similar attacks, US officials suggested al-Qaeda militants may be joining the fray.
The early morning Saturday explosions struck the heavily fortified air force intelligence building and the criminal security department, several miles apart in Damascus, at approximately the same time, the Interior Ministry said. Much of the facade of the intelligence building appeared to have been ripped away.
State-run news agency SANA said a third blast went off near a military bus at the Palestinian refugee camp Yarmouk in Damascus, killing the two suicide bombers.
"All our windows and doors are blown out," said Majed Seibiyah, 29, who lives in the area of one of the blasts. "I was sleeping when I heard a sound like an earthquake. I didn't grasp what was happening until I heard screaming in the street."
The first explosion at around 07:00 targeted the air force intelligence building in the residential district of al-Qassaa, a predominantly Christian area. It caused destruction in a 100m radius, shattering windows, blowing doors off their hinges and throwing chairs and other furniture off balconies.
State TV aired gruesome images of the scene, with mangled and charred corpses, bloodstained streets and twisted steel.
It carried interviews with the wounded in hospital.
"Is this the assistance promised by Qatar and Saudi Arabia?" asked one of the injured.
The two Gulf powerhouses have been fiercely critical of the Syrian government's crackdown on dissent and have been discussing military aid to the rebels. The UN says well over 8 000 have died since the uprising began a year ago, inspired by Arab Spring revolts across the Middle East and North Africa.
A string of previous blasts that struck the capital, also suicide bombings, have killed dozens of people since December.
The government has blamed the explosions on the "terrorists" that it claims are behind the uprising. The opposition has denied any role, saying they believe forces loyal to the government are behind the bombings in a plot to tarnish the uprising.
But top US intelligence officials also have pointed to al-Qaeda in Iraq as the likely culprit behind the previous bombings, raising the possibility its fighters are infiltrating across the border to take advantage of the turmoil.
Al-Qaeda's leader called for President Bashar Assad's ouster in February.
A previously unknown Islamist group calling itself Al-Nusra Front to Protect the Levant claimed responsibility for the previous attacks in a video posted online, saying it carried them out "to avenge the people of Homs." Homs is an opposition stronghold in central Syria that has been hard-hit in the government crackdown.
Al-Qaeda's involvement could further fuel the sectarian tensions that the uprising has already stoked. Al-Qaeda's supporters are largely Sunni Muslim extremists.
Syria's military and political leadership is stacked heavily with members of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam to which Assad and the ruling elite belong. The Alawite leaders of Syria are closely allied with Shi'ite Iran.
Questions around security
Sunnis are the majority in the country of 22 million and make up the backbone of the opposition.
A suspected al-Qaeda presence creates new obstacles for the US, its Western allies and Arab states trying to figure out a way to help push Assad from power. If al-Qaeda does interfere, it may also rally Syrian religious minorities, fearful of Sunni radicalism, to get behind the regime.
The blasts also raised questions about how suicide car bombers were able to penetrate high-security areas in Damascus. Since the first suicide bombings struck the capital in December, the government has taken exceptional measures around state security and other government institutions and ministries, putting up thick concrete blast walls and checkpoints and guards checking drivers' IDs.
Bassma Kodmani, a Paris-based member of the opposition Syrian National Council, said she doubted the armed groups trying to bring Assad down by force, such as the rebel Free Syrian Army, have the capacity to carry out such attacks on security institutions in the capital.
"I don't think any of the opposition forces or the Free Syrian Army has the capacity to do such an operation to target these buildings because they are fortresses," she said by telephone. "They are very well guarded. There is no way anyone can penetrate them without having strong support and complicity from inside the security apparatus."
Fears for prolonged battle
The rebel Free Syrian Army, the most powerful armed opposition force, has appealed for the international community to send weapons to help it fight the regime, but so far, no countries are heeding the call. The US and others have not advocated arming the rebels, in part out of fear it would create an even more bloody and prolonged battle.
Though the Syrian uprising began as mostly peaceful protests, it has becoming increasingly militarized, pushing the country to the brink of civil war.
An Interior Ministry statement tied the latest explosions to "the recent escalation by regional and international parties, and their open calls for sending weapons to Syria."
The morning attacks caused panic on the streets. Shooting broke out soon after the blasts and sent residents and others who had gathered in the area fleeing, an Associated Press reporter at the scene said.