The car bombs, which yesterday struck intelligence and security force buildings in Damascus, were described on state television as terrorist bombings.
State TV aired gruesome images of the scene, with mangled and charred corpses, bloodstained streets and twisted steel.
“All our windows and doors were blown out,” said Majed Seibiyah, 29, who lives in the area of one of the explosions. “I was sleeping when I heard a sound like an earthquake. I didn’t grasp what was happening until I heard screaming in the street.”
The blasts were the latest in a string of mysterious, large-scale attacks targeting the Syrian regime’s military and security installations. Previous blasts, also suicide bombings, have killed dozens of people since December, even as the regime wages a bloody crackdown against the year-old uprising against president Bashar al-Assad.
The government has blamed the explosions on the “terrorists” who it claims are behind the revolt. The opposition has denied any part in the attacks, saying they believe forces loyal to the government are behind the bombings, seeking to tarnish the uprising.
But top US intelligence officials have pointed to al-Qaeda in Iraq as the likely culprit behind the previous bombings, raising the possibility its fighters have crossed into Syria to take advantage of growing turmoil.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s leader called in February for Assad to step down.
A suspected al-Qaeda presence creates new obstacles for the West, as well as Arab states trying to work out a way to help push Assad from power, and may also rally Syrian religious minorities, fearful of Sunni radicalism, to get behind the regime.
Bassma Kodmani, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council, said she doubted the armed groups trying to bring down Assad by force, such as the rebel Free Syrian Army, had the capacity to carry out such attacks on security targets in the capital.
“I don’t think any of the opposition forces or the Free Syrian Army has the capacity to do such an operation to target these buildings because they are fortresses,” she said. “They are very well guarded. There is no way anyone can penetrate them without having strong support and complicity from inside the security apparatus.”
The Free Syrian Army has appealed for countries opposing the regime to send weapons to help its fight, but so far to little effect. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been discussing military aid, but America and other western nations have not advocated arming the rebels, in part out of fear it would create an even bloodier and more prolonged conflict.
An interior ministry statement tied yesterday’s explosions to “the escalation seen recently by regional and international sides, which was consecrated with their open calls for sending weapons to Syria”.
The statement said Syria “will act decisively against anyone who dares strike the security, stability and unity of the country”.
The twin suicide car bombings hit the air force intelligence department building and the criminal security department, several miles apart in Damascus, at approximately the same time, around 7am, the interior ministry said. Much of the façade of the intelligence building appeared to have been ripped away.
Shooting broke out soon after the explosions, causing residents and others who had gathered in the area to flee. A Syrian official also said there were reports of a third blast yesterday targeting a military bus at the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, but there were no details.
The last major suicide bombing in Syria happened on 10 February when twin explosions struck security compounds in the government stronghold of Aleppo in northern Syria, killing 28 people.
In Damascus, another Assad stronghold, there have been three previous suicide bombings since December, hitting intelligence and security buildings.
The Syrian government denies there is popular backing behind the uprising, saying foreign extremists and gangs are trying to destroy the country. But Assad’s opponents deny that and say an increasingly active rebel force has been pushed into taking up arms because the government has used tanks, snipers and machine guns to crush peaceful protests.
The UN estimates that more that 8,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad began last March.
In recent weeks, Syrian forces have waged a series of heavy offensives against the main strongholds of the opposition – Homs in central Syria, Idlib in the north and Deraa in the south.
The bloodshed fuels sectarian tensions. The military’s top leadership is stacked heavily with members of the minority Alawite sect, to which Assad and the ruling elite belong. Sunnis are the majority in the country of 22 million people and make up the backbone of the opposition.
Diplomatic efforts to solve the crisis have so far brought no result but UN envoy Kofi Annan told the Security Council in a briefing on Friday that he will return to Damascus even though his recent talks with Assad produced no progress in attempts to cobble together peace negotiations between the two sides.
After the confidential briefing via videolink, Annan told reporters in Geneva that he urged the council “to speak with one voice as we try to resolve the crisis in Syria.”
Russia and China have blocked UN action against Assad’s regime.
“The first objective is for all of us to end the violence, human rights abuses and the killings and get unimpeded access for humanitarian access to the needy and, of course, the all-important issue of political process that will lead to a democratic Syria,” Annan said.
Both Assad and much of the opposition spurned Annan’s appeal for talks.