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Twin car bombs devastate key Syrian intelligence agency in Damascus

A pair of bombings Thursday outside one of the most feared branches of the Syrian intelligence services killed more than 55 people, the Syrian government said. It was the deadliest act of violence in the country’s nearly 14 months of political upheaval.

The explosion of two bomb-laden vehicles left wide craters, and images broadcast by Al Dounia, a TV channel aligned with the government, showed charred corpses and burned cars. The blasts took place shortly before 8 a.m., and the majority of the victims appeared to be civilians on their way to work or school.

The bombings targeted the headquarters of the Palestine Branch, one of the government’s many intelligence agencies, where hundreds, if not thousands, of people have been interrogated since the uprising against President Bashar Assad’s government began last year.

The explosions added to concerns that a U.N.-sponsored peace plan, which will have been in effect for one month on Saturday, has little hope of succeeding. Government forces continue to launch raids and arrest Assad opponents despite a cease-fire, while anti-Assad rebels continue to assault government troops throughout the country.

Bombings, which have become more frequent in recent weeks, only feed that cycle. Following Thursday’s blasts, residents of at least one neighborhood in southern Damascus that’s been the frequent site of anti-government protests said they could hear gunfire and that security forces were conducting raids and making arrests.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Some reports said the blasts had gone off one after the other, timed apparently so that the second blast, which was larger than the first, would catch security forces as they responded. In recent days, Syrian soldiers in the north and center of the country have told McClatchy that rebel forces there were using similar tactics when attacking the military. Smaller explosions also have taken place in Damascus and the cities of Hama and Idlib in the last week.

At least one rebel group, the Al Nusra Front, has claimed responsibility for similar attacks.

The explosions came against a backdrop of continuing violence elsewhere in the country. Anti-government activists said the government was pressing an offensive in Homs, the country’s third largest city, and in nearby Hama, the scene of an infamous assault three decades ago by Assad’s father that left thousands dead.

In Hama, anti-government activists said shelling killed one person Thursday and four Wednesday. The activists said 12 people were killed in Homs on Wednesday, five as a result of shelling. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported 60 deaths from Monday to Wednesday.

Still, there are some hopeful signs. Earlier this week, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross said his organization had been able to provide aid to some of the 1.5 million Syrians who are estimated to have been affected by the conflict.

"Over the past two months, the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent have been able to reach people in Idlib, Homs, Hama, Daraa, Aleppo and rural Damascus,” Jakob Kellenberger said. “It is encouraging that our dialogue with both the authorities and the opposition is paying off. In particular, we managed to secure a ’humanitarian pause’ in the violence for the first time almost two weeks ago in Douma, near Damascus, for two consecutive days."

But he said much more aid needed to be provided and he called for $27 million to be donated.

Rabab al Rifai, the ICRC spokeswoman in Damascus, said last week that the ICRC had provided some kind of aid to more than 400,000 Syrians since last July, the majority since the beginning of this year.

On Thursday in the northern city of Idlib, a relative calm allowed dozens of people to line up outside the Red Crescent’s offices in the heavily guarded downtown.

“Refugees are being hosted in schools and in mosques,” Rifai said. “Food (aid) is at the top of the list.”

The Red Crescent still appears to have little access to areas the rebels control, however.

There are about 50 U.N. monitors in Syria, a number that’s expected to increase to 300 by the end of the month. Syrians report that the presence of the U.N. monitors has cut the violence, but they complain that the U.N. so far has been unable to halt it.

“The shelling is less than it was before; that is the only benefit,” said Mousab al Hamadee, an activist in Hama.

On Monday, two people were killed by a car bomb in Deir Al Zor, near Syria’s border with Iraq, and on Tuesday, a roadside bomb targeted a convoy of U.N. vehicles that included a Syrian military vehicle in Daraa, near the Jordanian border.

SANA, the Syrian government news agency, said 10 military and police officers were buried Thursday. The report said the men had been killed in five of Syria’s 14 provinces, but it didn’t specify when.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 11,000 people have been killed in Syria since March 2011, the majority of them civilians. The Syrian government has reported that rebels have killed more than 3,000 military and security personnel and civilians.