Two suicide car bombs ripped through the Syrian capital yesterday, killing 55 people and tearing the facade off a military intelligence building in the deadliest explosions since the country’s uprising began 14 months ago.
Residents said the blasts happened in quick succession during morning rush hour, with an initial small explosion followed by a larger bomb that appeared aimed at onlookers and rescue crews arriving at the scene.
Paramedics collected human remains from the pavement as heavily damaged cars and pickup trucks smouldered. More than 370 people were wounded.
There was no claim of responsibility but an a-Qaida-inspired group has claimed responsibility for several past explosions, raising fears that terrorist groups are entering the fray and exploiting the chaos.
Central Damascus is under the tight control of forces loyal to President Bashar Assad but has been struck by several bomb attacks, often targeting security installations or convoys, since the revolt against him began in March last year.
But the previous attacks happened on a weekend when many people stay home from work, making it less likely for civilians to be killed.
Yesterday’s blast was similar to attacks waged by al-Qaida in Iraq, which would bolster past allegations by top US intelligence officials that the terror network from the neighbouring country was the likely culprit behind previous bombings in Syria. That raises the possibility that its fighters are infiltrating across the border to take advantage of the political turmoil.
A shadowy group called the Al-Nusra Front has claimed responsibility for some of the attacks in statements posted on militant websites. Western intelligence officials say it could be a front for al-Qaida’s Iraq branch.
Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri called for Mr Assad’s removal in February.
The Syrian government blames the bombings on the rebels challenging the Assad family dynasty which has ruled Syria for four decades. But opposition leaders and activists routinely blame the regime for the attacks.
Syria’s state-run news agency posted gruesome pictures of the corpses, possibly to shock Syrians into abandoning any support for the opposition.
Maj Gen Robert Mood, the Norwegian head of the UN’s ceasefire monitors in the country, toured the site and said the Syrian people do not deserve this “terrible violence.”
The relentless violence in the country has brought a ceasefire plan brokered by special envoy Kofi Annan to the brink of collapse. The UN said weeks ago that more than 9,000 people had been killed. Hundreds more have died since as the conflict has become increasingly militarised, with protesters taking up arms or joining forces with army defectors to fight a brutal crackdown by regime forces.
Mr Annan appealed for calm and an end to bloodshed.
“The Syrian people have already suffered too much,” he said in a statement.
International diplomacy has failed to stop the bloodshed with Russia and China vetoing efforts to rein-in Assad and the UN has ruled out military intervention.
Mr Annan brokered a peace plan last month, but the initiative has been troubled from the start, with government troops shelling opposition areas and rebels attacking military convoys and checkpoints after the cease-fire was supposed to begin on April 12.
A full team of 300 UN military observers is expected by the end of the month to allow for talks on a political solution to the conflict.
Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned the attack.
He said: “Yet again it is the people of Syria who are suffering as a result of the repression and violence, which must come to an end. As Kofi Annan made clear to the UN Security Council earlier this week, the onus is on the Syrian authorities to implement a full ceasefire and begin the political dialogue required by the Annan Plan.”