x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Damascus car-bombs kill 27

Al Assad regime blames the uprising and 'Al Qaeda terrorists' for the latest in a series of deadly blasts at key military and security bases.

DAMASCUS // Twin blasts hit security service centres in the heart of Damascus yesterday morning, killing at least 27 people and wounding at least 100 more.

The explosions at 7.30am were powerful enough to shake windows more than a dozen kilometres away. Tall plumes of black smoke rose into the clear blue sky above the city.

State run media said preliminary investigations indicated car bombs had been used in both cases and broadcast gruesome pictures of body parts among the burnt out cars and shattered cement.

The blasts were the latest in a string of mysterious, large-scale attacks targeting the Syrian regime's military and security installations. The previous blasts, also suicide bombings, have killed dozens of people since December amid the regime's bloody repression of an uprising against the president, Bashar Al Assad.

The government has blamed the explosions on the "terrorists" it says are behind the revolt. Pro-democracy activists accuse security forces of carrying out the bombings, ruthlessly killing their own members to frighten Syrians into supporting the government and to shore up the regime's international standing.

One of the buildings struck yesterday was used by air-force intelligence, the most feared branch of Syria's secret police units. Activists say it has been at the forefront of the violent campaign to crush the year-long anti-regime uprising.

Armed rebel forces attacked an air-force intelligence compound on the outskirts of Damascus last year, using small arms that were ineffective against the fortified building.

Yesterday's bombing was of a much greater magnitude, tearing the front from the multi-storey concrete structure in the densely populated Baghdad Street area, and punching holes through cinder block walls. The second blast hit a large office of the criminal police in the customs area of the city, close to a military base and the headquarters of state television.

Activists say this site has also been used in the detention and interrogation of political prisoners.

While the blasts occurred in busy areas of Damascus, they happened at the weekend and long before traffic starts to build up, suggesting they were not designed for maximum civilian casualties.

Pro-government radio and television stations were quick to blame Al Qaeda, drawing parallels between the kind of bombings that became common in Iraq after the US-led invasion of 2003.

The regime has made much of the presence of Islamist extremists and Al Qaeda affiliated groups. Rather than facing a popular uprising demanding real political reforms after decades of corrupt autocracy, the regime says it is facing "terrorist" opposition, backed by foreign powers bent on toppling Mr Al Assad because of his alliance with Iran and defiance of Israel.

US intelligence officials agree Al Qaeda is active in the Syrian revolt, and appears to have been behind bombings in Damascus and Aleppo.

James Clapper, director of US national intelligence, said last month he believed extremists had infiltrated opposition groups and Al Qaeda affiliates from neighbouring Iraq, where they have long battled American troops, had moved into Syria.

He said that was one reason why Washington was not prepared to provide weapons to rebel forces. Saudi Arabia has already begun supplying them with munitions, it was reported yesterday. A leading Arab diplomat said arms would be shipped via Jordan.

A double car-bomb attack on two intelligence offices in Damascus on December 23 was blamed on Al Qaeda by the Syrian authorities. Officials said 44 security officers and civilians were killed, with another 166 wounded.

In January, another bomb hit security officers in the capital on a Friday morning, at a staging point in the Midan neighbourhood, an area that has played a central role in the uprising.

That attack killed 26 security officers and civilians and wounded another 63.

A third major bombing hit Aleppo, Syria's second largest city, in February, with two car bombs at a military security office killing 28 and wounding 235.

Pro-democracy activists insist Al Qaeda has no role in the revolution and it is being exploited by the regime to tarnish what they maintain is an overwhelmingly peaceful uprising and spread fear both domestically and abroad.

The timing of the various blasts, which have coincided with moments of growing domestic or international pressure, such as the arrival of Arab League monitors, have only fuelled opposition suspicions of a deadly dirty-tricks campaign by the regime.

Yesterday's attacks come as Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab League joint envoy to Syria, continued to push for a ceasefire and for the return of independent monitors.

A technical team from Mr Annan's office is due to arrive in Damascus today, according to Syrian officials, to discuss deployment of international observers.

Nonetheless, even supporters of the revolt concede growing violence and months of atrocities are steering the country towards a civil war and fuelling the kind of sentiments that lead to Islamist militancy.

"Al Qaeda is not in Syria, that is just regime propaganda and US paranoia," said a leading anti-regime activist. "But if the situation keeps on like it is, Al Qaeda will come here and we will all pay the price."