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Twin blasts kill 27 in Syria's capital, Damascus

AMMAN, Jordan — After weeks of punishing defeats in rebellious Syrian cities, anti-government insurgents struck at the heart of President Bashar Assad's regime Saturday with twin bombings in the capital that killed 27 and wounded more than 100.

The Syrian state news agency, SANA, carried a statement from the Syrian interior ministry saying that "booby-trapped" cars driven by suicide bombers were behind the coordinated attacks in Damascus, which struck five minutes apart just after 7 a.m. The ministry said investigators had collected evidence, remains and "remnants of explosives materials" that were sent to labs for testing.

The blasts targeted security and intelligence posts just two days after thousands of pro-Assad demonstrators rallied in the capital on the first anniversary of the uprising.

The deadly attacks were a reminder that, even if Assad manages to rout rebels from flashpoint cities, he still faces the prospect of a bloody, drawn-out guerrilla campaign designed to wear down his isolated regime. Members of the loose grouping of rebel forces known as the Free Syrian Army denied responsibility for the bombings — which seemed to suggest, as some U.S. officials have warned, that outside forces would try to exploit the chaos in Syria, which has divided the Middle East along sectarian lines.

Saturday's blasts followed similar bombings in recent months in Damascus and the commercial capital, Aleppo, that U.S. intelligence officials — along with Assad's regime — have blamed on al Qaida-inspired insurgents who've slipped into the country from neighboring Iraq. With a blanket ban on independent reporting in Syria, it's impossible to verify the makeup of the rebel forces, or what fraction is comprised of alleged jihadists. Anti-government activists blame the Syrian government itself.

The interior ministry, according to SANA, claimed that the attacks were in line with the recent "escalation by regional and international parties" and linked it to the renewed calls for foreign military intervention to resolve the crisis. The Sunni Muslim regimes in Saudi Arabia and Qatar have called for arming the rebels fighting Assad's government, which is led by Alawites, a branch of Shiite Islam.

In its statement, the ministry promised a strong response to the attacks, saying it "will not be tolerant while dealing firmly with all those who attempt to strike Syria's security, stability and unity, and terrorize its citizens."

SANA's report was accompanied by a montage of grisly photos of the bombings' aftermath. The front of one targeted building appeared to have been sheared off, while the grounds were shown littered with human body parts and twisted metal debris from vehicles.

In one photo, a man appears to be holding a scalp; in another, the toes of a severed foot are visible. Other images were of responders packing charred human remains into body bags.

"The explosion was quite loud. I believe that all of Damascus heard it. It was a really, really big blast," said Mar, an anti-government activist.

Mar, who asked that his full name be withheld to shield him from reprisals, said that he saw the Syrian military deployed near Umayyad Square in the capital, close to the site of the first blast. It is a military area closely watched by security checkpoints, he said.

"No car could park there without being asked why they're there," Mar said. "No one could pass by without being questioned. The place is very secure. It's not a civilian area, it's a governmental area. The area is close to the location of the first blast two months ago."

He said that the second blast occurred near the al Mazzeh neighborhood, which is a mixed civilian and military area.

"This is a terrorist act," said Mar. "We are not terrorists."

The FSA — generally poorly armed military defectors and volunteers who have taken up arms against Assad's government — lack the weapons and organization to carry out such an attack, he and other activists said. In recent weeks, Assad's larger and far better equipped army has routed the FSA from the cities of Homs and Idlib. The rebels have struggled to restock their weapons from outside with Syrian forces watching the border with Lebanon and reportedly laying land mines near the border with Turkey.

Agence France-Presse quoted an anonymous Arab diplomat who claimed that Saudi Arabia was sending military equipment to the FSA through Jordan. The claim couldn't be verified, and representatives of the Jordanian government couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar are expected again to raise the issue of supporting the rebels at a summit of Arab League nations scheduled for March 29 in Baghdad.

While several member nations are reluctant to support any sort of military intervention, Arab leaders are under pressure to act as the death toll mounts in the year-old conflict. The United Nations recorded more than 5,000 deaths in the government's crackdown before it stopped counting, citing the unstable conditions that make an accurate tally impossible.

In late December, two car bombs in Damascus reportedly targeted a state security headquarters and a security branch office, which SANA said killed 44 and wounded 166 security personnel and civilians.

Two weeks later, on Jan. 6, an alleged suicide bomber detonated explosives in a crowded area near a school in Damascus, killing 26 and wounding 63. SANA described the victims as both "civilians and law-enforcement personnel."

Aleppo, the largest city, which has seen increasing unrest and demonstrations in recent months, especially on its outskirts, was rocked by twin bombings against security targets on Feb. 10. The explosions left 28 dead and more than 200 wounded, according to SANA.

(Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Allam reported from Cairo.)


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For more international news visit McClatchy's Middle East page.

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