In a dramatic twist in the nine-month uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad, government officials said Friday that two suicide car bombers detonated hundreds of pounds of explosives in front of buildings used by intelligence agencies in the heart of Damascus, the capital.
Officials quickly pointed the finger at Al Qaeda, saying the dramatic escalation in violence confirms their contention that armed terrorists are behind the unrest.
To reinforce the point, state television broadcast video of mangled body parts, burned-out vehicles and bloodied pavement against an action-movie-like soundtrack. The Interior Ministry said 44 people were killed and 166 injured.
But many opposition activists accused the government of staging the entire scene for an advance team from the Arab League, which had arrived hours before to prepare for an observer mission to determine whether Syria is fulfilling its pledge to end a deadly crackdown on antigovernment protesters who have been holding major demonstrations since March.
The Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists who organize protests and report on the violence, said security forces killed as many as 21 people Friday as thousands took to the streets after midday prayers in opposition strongholds.
The wildly divergent allegations were a pointed reminder of how difficult it is to obtain credible information about an uprising with competing narratives and few, if any, independent observers. Most foreign journalists have been barred from entering Syria, leaving them to piece together events from amateur videos, Facebook postings and conversations over shaky Skype connections with activists who rarely distinguish between fact and rumor. Both sides have put out inaccurate information.
The timing of the twin blasts, which happened minutes apart and could be heard across the city, was bound to raise suspicion among antigovernment activists.
Syria has been under mounting pressure to end the violence, which the United Nations says has killed more than 5,000 people. There have been calls for international intervention, a prospect certain to raise alarm among regime insiders just months after a Western-led military campaign helped topple Moammar Kadafi in Libya.
The Arab League, which last month suspended Syria’s membership and imposed sweeping sanctions, has threatened to go to the U.N. Security Council if Syria does not comply with a regional peace initiative calling on the government to withdraw its forces from cities and towns, release political prisoners, open negotiations with its opponents and admit foreign monitors. The first observers are expected to arrive within days.
Syrian officials brought the league’s advance team to the site of Friday’s bombings in Kafar Sousa, an upscale neighborhood of Damascus, and addressed reporters outside the headquarters of the General Intelligence Agency, where bodies remained on the ground.
“We said it from the beginning, this is terrorism,” Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad said. “They are killing the army and civilians.”
The government says more than 2,000 security personnel have been killed defending the country against Islamic extremists and armed gangs, which it alleges are incited and supported from abroad.
The head of the advance team, Samir Seif Yazal, said it had come to “see the facts on the ground.”
“What we are seeing today is regretful,” he said. “The important thing is for things to calm down.”
The United Nations Security Council and the United States condemned the bombings.
“There is no justification for terrorism of any kind, and we condemn these acts wherever they occur,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.
A U.S. official with access to intelligence declined to speculate about who might be responsible, saying, “For the moment, it’s unclear.”
“It’s best to get all the information before assigning blame one way or another,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak for the record.
The official Syrian Arab News Agency said the attacks were carried out by two suicide car bombers, believed to be the first time such tactics have been used in the uprising.
“Preliminary investigations indicated that the criminal attack carries the blueprints of Al Qaeda,” the agency said.
Lebanese authorities warned Syria two days before the bombings that Al Qaeda had infiltrated Syria from the Lebanese town of Ersal, Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said in an email.
A man with a bandaged head who was interviewed from a hospital bed by state television said he saw one of the car bombs detonate.
“I was going to work,” he said. “I took a taxi to Kafar Sousa. The explosion happened. A car, van. Its color was white. After that, we got out of the car, me and one other person, and ran in the direction of the road to Assad University Hospital.”
Another man pointed angrily to his apartment building and said, “This is freedom? Breaking windows and doors? … Come see the freedom, Arab League.”
What began as a mostly peaceful uprising has turned increasingly violent in some parts of the country where military defectors have turned their guns against Assad’s regime. Fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, they have claimed responsibility for a number of daring attacks, including a raid last month on an intelligence headquarters on the outskirts of Damascus.
But the group’s leader, Col. Riad Assad, told Al Jazeera that they did not have the “tactical capability” to carry out Friday’s bombings. “We only have light arms,” said Assad, who is not related to the president. He said the Free Syrian Army acts only to protect protesters. But it is not clear how much control the group’s leadership in Turkey has over fighters in Syria.
Rumors swirled Friday in activist circles that the government itself had set off the explosions and planted bodies at the scene. How could the government have known so quickly that Al Qaeda was behind the attacks? they asked.
Many insisted that security forces stationed nearby did not respond to the blasts but simply drank their tea.
“It’s very strange that the explosions happened at state intelligence” said a 27-year-old neighborhood resident, too afraid to be identified. “It’s completely prohibited to bring a car there in front of the security branches. No one can even get out of a taxi there, or they’ll immediately demand your ID. There are always security cars in front of each branch’s door.”
The Syrian National Council, the country’s most prominent opposition bloc, said in a statement that “the Syrian regime and its security apparatus bear sole, direct responsibility for the terrorist explosions.”
It alleged that the bombings were intended to dissuade the league’s observers from visiting security installations and to reinforce the government’s assertion that it is facing an external threat rather than a popular uprising.
The statement accused the government of moving detainees to military installations, where the government can restrict access to the observers under its agreement with the league. And it said medical personnel had been instructed to hide evidence of abuse at hospitals and warned against making statements to the observers.
The regime has said the observers will be under government protection and free to move about the country, but they will not be allowed to visit sensitive military sites.
Paul is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Ken Dilanian in Washington contributed to this report.