Twin suicide car bombs exploded outside two buildings of Syria’s powerful intelligence agencies yesterday – killing at least 40 people and wounding more than 100 others.
They were the first such attacks since the country was thrown into turmoil by the nine-month-old uprising against the rule of President Bashar Assad.
The government quickly held up the explosions as proof of its claims it is battling not a popular uprising but terrorists intent on overthrowing the regime.
However, the regime’s opponents cast doubt on its account, hinting the authorities themselves could be behind the attack to make its case to Arab observers who arrived in the country only a day earlier.
The explosions left a swathe of destruction, with torn bodies on the ground outside the headquarters of the General Intelligence Agency and a nearby branch of military intelligence, two agencies that have played a significant role in the bloody campaign against anti-Assad protests.
All the windows in the military building were blown out and dozens of burned out cars lined the street.
State TV said initial investigations indicated possible involvement by the al-Qaida terror network.
Government officials brought the Arab League observers to the scene to see the wreckage.
“We said it from the beginning, this is terrorism. They are killing the army and civilians,” Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad told reporters.
Alongside him, the advance team’s head, Sameer Seif el-Yazal, said, “We are here to see the facts on the ground. ... What we are seeing today is regrettable, the important thing is for things to calm down.”
Assad’s regime has long contended the violence is being fuelled by terrorists and foreign-backed armed gangs. In recent months, dissident soldiers have broken from the military to side with peaceful protesters and have carried out attacks on government forces.
But yesterday’s attack was different - the first suicide bombings seen during the conflict in which more than 5,000 people are believed to have died. More than 200 people are said been killed over two days just this week, in violence activists claim was escalated ahead of Thursday’s arrival of the observer team which is supposed to verify Syria’s implementation of promises to pull back troops and halt the crackdown.
And bombings in the country are rare, though in September 2008 a suicide car bomb struck outside a security building on Damascus’ southern outskirts, killing 17 people, the deadliest attack in decades.
Omar Idilbi, a member of the Syrian National Council, an anti-regime umbrella group, called the explosions “very mysterious because they happened in heavily guarded areas that are difficult to be penetrated by a car”.
He stopped short of accusing the regime, but he said authorities wanted “to give this story” to scare observers from moving around the country and send a message that “Syria is being subjected to acts of terrorism by members of al-Qaida.”
The two blasts went off within moments of each other at 10:15 am, echoing across the city. Authorities said the vehicles detonated at the gates of the two walled compounds.
Outside the two buildings, mutilated and torn bodies lay amid rubble, twisted debris and burned cars in Damascus’ up-market Kfar Sousa district. Bystanders and ambulance workers used blankets and stretchers to carry bloodstained bodies into vehicles. All the windows were shattered in the nearby state security building, which was targeted by the other bomb.
“The explosions shook the house; it was frightful,” said Nidal Hamidi, a 34-year-old Syrian journalist who lives in Kfar Sousa.
He said gunfire was heard immediately afterwards and apartment windows in a 200-metre radius from the explosions were shattered.