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Issue 519/ 7th - 13th Jan 2012
Bomb Attack Kills Dozens Of People In Syrian Capital
BEIRUT, Lebanon, January 7, 2012 — A bomb tore through a crowded neighborhood in Damascus on Friday, killing 26 people and wounding dozens more, unleashing scenes of chaos and underlining the growing confusion and complexity of the Syrian uprising, officials and residents said.
The bombings were the second in two weeks in the fortified capital, though no one has claimed responsibility for either. An uprising that began relatively peacefully in March has grown markedly more violent, with Friday’s bloody episode and bolder insurgent attacks punctuating a landscape roiled by antigovernment protests that again showed new momentum.
In style at least, the bombings themselves recalled another revolt in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when an Islamist insurgency marked by bombings and large-scale killings posed a sweeping challenge to the rule of Hafez al-Assad, the father of Syria’s current president, Bashar al-Assad.
“A known political party was behind the attacks in those years,” said Louay Hussein, a prominent opposition figure in Syria, who was reached by telephone. “Today, we don’t know who is behind these attacks, and this represents a great danger.”
Mr. Hussein’s fears illustrated the prevailing sense of suspicion that reigns in Damascus, which had until recently been so sheltered from the uprising that some diplomats had taken to calling it Syria’s equivalent of Baghdad’s Green Zone.
As with the bombings on Dec. 23, which were aimed at security installations in the capital and killed 44 people, the government blamed “terrorists.” The Syrian state news agency, SANA, carried an Interior Ministry statement saying the attack “had the fingerprints of Al Qaeda all over them” and cast it as another escalation in what the government has consistently described as an armed uprising by Islamists financed from abroad.
“We will strike back with an iron fist at anyone who is tempted to play with the security of the country,” Syrian state television quoted Interior Minister Ibrahim al-Shaar as saying.
But in a climate where virtually everyone’s intentions are questioned, many dissident figures asserted that the government itself had carried out the attack to sully the opposition’s image and validate its own argument that it was fighting terrorists. In a statement, the Muslim Brotherhood, which opposes Mr. Assad, said it held “the regime, its agents and its gangs fully responsible for this crime.”
Evidence was scant for either the government’s or the opposition’s narrative, but the bombing seemed to underline each party’s version of events: a dictatorial government so cynical as to kill its own people or a religiously inspired opposition bent on sowing anarchy in an increasingly combustible country.
“We’re expecting more of these bombings in the coming days,” said Col. Ammar al-Wawi, an army defector reached by phone who works with an insurgent group called the Free Syrian Army that is based in Turkey near the border. “This regime is seeking to spread chaos in Syria.”
American officials stopped short of suggesting government involvement, but said the attack pointed to a state whose authority was beginning to crumble. “Today’s blast in Damascus is yet another indicator that this regime is losing control of parts of the country,” an Obama administration official said on the condition of anonymity. “Even its security forces are thugs who at times appear to be operating outside state control.”
Government news media said the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber at a busy intersection, and Syrian state television broadcast images of a wrecked police bus, asphalt smeared with blood and littered with glass and the shattered windshields of other vehicles. It said that “a powerful explosion” struck the restive neighborhood of Midan and that both civilians and personnel with the security forces had been wounded or killed.
State television quoted the Interior Ministry as putting the number of wounded at 63.
Sirens of ambulances and police vehicles were heard as government forces poured into the neighborhood, where hundreds of loyalists to Mr. Assad soon gathered. They chanted for the Syrian president, held aloft his portraits and carried wooden clubs. Checkpoints proliferated across the capital, residents said, making travel difficult.
In the chaotic aftermath of the attack, residents in nearby neighborhoods said security and paramilitary forces and loyalists to Mr. Assad went on what some described as a rampage, shooting randomly and beating and arresting people in the streets.
“I just saw a guy being smacked and hit on the head with sticks,” said a 19-year-old student who gave her name as Amana and was visiting a friend in the nearby neighborhood of Kafr Souseh at the time. “You have no idea how I feel right now.”
In another nearby locale, a 57-year-old resident described a similar scene, as government paramilitary forces known as shabeeha moved through the streets around noon.
“I don’t know what’s happening today,” he said. “We heard about the explosion, but right now shabeeha and security are shooting and arresting young men randomly.”
As he spoke by phone, he said he could see someone detained from his window.
“Oh, my merciful God!” he started shouting.
The attack on Friday came ahead of weekly protests that seem to have revived somewhat since the arrival of an observer mission from the Arab League in December. Many protesters have expressed anger that the mission has done little to stem the bloodshed, and the demonstrations were expected to call for the Arab League to shift responsibility for the monitoring of human rights violations to the United Nations.
France added its voice to the criticism of the mission, whose work is supposed to be discussed by the Arab League in a meeting in Cairo over the weekend.
“This mission is not at present able to do its job properly,” the French foreign minister, Alain Juppé, said Friday, during a visit to Tunisia.
The Local Coordination Committees, an opposition group that helps organize and document protests, said at least 35 people were killed in the protests Friday. Most of the protesters died, the group said, in locales that have proven the most restive since the uprising began — the suburbs of Damascus and the central cities of Homs and Hama.
“The regime wants to frighten us with these explosions, but we will continue our peaceful demonstrations until we see Bashar out of the country and out of power,” said a 22-year-old protester in Midan, where the attack occurred. He gave his name as Shadi. “The Assad regime is only trying to buy time and fears international intervention.”
By nightfall, rumors continued to fly over culpability in the bombing. A post on a Web site of Al Jazeera, attributed to insurgents, predicted the attack 12 hours before it happened. The page was later inaccessible. Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group allied with the Syrian government, suggested that the United States had a hand in the bombing.
Opposition figures condemned the government for providing no evidence that the attack was the work of terrorists, much less suicide bombers.
But with expectations growing that Syria’s uprising may prove the most intractable and potentially the bloodiest of all the Arab revolts that began in December 2010 in Tunisia, often heard was a sense of unease and apprehension over what awaited.
“The hardest thing that can happen to someone is to lose control over his conditions and his life, and I have now started to feel that I have lost control over my life,” said Mr. Hussein, the opposition figure. “We are now facing a storm. It is hard for us to control the conditions of our lives and to know where we are heading.”
Reporting was contributed by Hwaida Saad, Nada Bakri and an employee of The New York Times from Beirut, and an employee of The Times from Damascus, Syria.
Source: The New York Times