Friday, May 11, 2012

At Least 40 Die as Twin Explosions Rock Syrian Capital

Two "booby-trapped cars" filled with more than a ton of explosives blew up and killed dozens in Damascus on Thursday, Syria's Interior Ministry said, a bloody strike that drew widespread condemnation and continued finger-pointing in the volatile nation. There was no claim of responsibility. The Interior Ministry blamed "terrorists" for the attack -- a term that President Bashar al-Assad's government has used to describe opposition fighters, and that the U.N. Security Council and a key opposition group used to characterize Thursday's bombings. Yet many opposed to al-Assad claimed government forces authorized the bombings directly or indirectly to curry support, while at least one suggested the blast may show the regime is losing control of the Middle Eastern nation. The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 59 died and the nation's intelligence agency building was destroyed in what it called the single deadliest attack since Syrian forces began cracking down on dissenters in March 2011. The Interior Ministry put the death toll at 55 civilians and security force members, with 372 injured and "massive material losses." The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said the blasts hit an intersection in densely populated neighborhood of Qazzaz as students and employees headed out to start their days. State television showed panicked residents running down bloody streets strewn with body parts and burned cars. The government said the blasts led to scores of car crashes. Amid the chaos, plumes of smoke and white ashes rose into the hazy skies as rescue crews rushed toward the injured. "The place looks like hell," one man told Syria state TV, describing "burned corpses all over the place." "The victims are our sons and daughters. There are many people who died inside their houses." One woman asked, "What sins did those innocent people commit? ...Those terrorists have no religion. This act is inhumane." The government placed the blame squarely on the opposition movement. But two groups that are part of that effort -- the Syrian National Council and the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change -- faulted the regime. Opposition members have accused al-Assad's forces of staging high-profile bombings in the large cities of Aleppo and Damascus in recent months to undermine the resistance's credibility. "This is a government-planned attack, and we are used to provocations using these tactics," said Ausama Monajed, the adviser to the Council's president. "We are in touch with the armed resistance." Brig. Gen. Moustafa el-Sheikh, the head of the rebel Free Syrian Army's military council, said that "no other parties in Syria ... are technically capable of making such a huge explosion, except for the regime itself." "Not even al Qaeda can do that," he said. Analysts said the attack raises concerns about the presence of jihadist elements in Syria, noting the Damascus strike resembles suicide car bombings during the sectarian civil warfare prevalent in the last decade in Iraq. Bill Roggio, an analyst on terror and military issues, said he believes the attack "very likely" was carried out by an al Qaeda-linked militant group called the Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, which has claimed credit for recent suicide attacks in Damascus and Aleppo. He said another jihadi group called the Al Baraa Ibn Malik Martyrdom Brigade also has surfaced, and that al Qaeda in Iraq has had a "strong presence" in Syria. Foreign fighters entered Iraq through Syria during the war there. Jeffrey White, a defense fellow and analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, concurred that Thursday's strike is akin to what al Qaeda elements in Iraq claimed credit for -- "suicide, coordinated, very destructive." While Roggio, the managing editor of the Long War Journal blog, called it "very concerning" that opposition groups have "ignored" or denied the activities of terrorist groups, White said opposition members aren't ignoring an uptick in terrorist activity. Rather, they feel al-Assad's regime is using "jihadists and al Qaeda types" that it was connected to during the Iraq war. There are people in the Syrian opposition, for example, who call the Al Nusrah Front a Syrian government organization. "The opposition guys are saying the regime still controls them. When they want them to do something, they order them up," White said. Noting that the attack "is not typical of Free Syrian Army-type actions such as ambushes, bombings of regime vehicles, targeted killings, and attacks on checkpoints," White said there is no way to know definitively who is responsible. But he said he doubts the government is behind attacking "pillars of the regime." But Rafif Jouejati, spokeswoman for the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria, said that al-Assad's forces could be "stepping up its attacks on civilians." "The regime thugs who have been scrawling 'Assad or we burn down the country' all over Syria appear to be making good on the promise," she said. Or, she said, the government could be losing control and "allowing a dire situation to get worse." "The very chaos that some were afraid would reign in the country post-Assad is being perpetuated by the regime today," she said. "If it was indeed an external group, the regime is clearly not in control of the situation, as they have traditionally claimed to be." The United Nations has said more than 9,000 people have been killed nationwide in the past 14 months, while opposition groups put the toll at more than 11,000. There has been a stepped-up peace effort in recent weeks, led by joint U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan. But the violence has continued since the April 12 deadline for a cease-fire brokered by Annan that, theoretically, key parties had agreed to. The Local Coordination Committees reports at least 1,025 people have been killed -- some of them executed and tortured to death -- since that date. Another 20 people died Thursday at the hands of "regime forces," the group said, including nine in Homs and three apiece in Aleppo and the suburbs of Damascus. The opposition added that the government onslaught continued into Thursday night with mortar-fire aimed at Old Homs, heavy gunfire in parts of Daraa and gunfire at demonstrators in Damascus.(CNN)

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