Two bombs have exploded in Damascus, killing at least five policemen and wounding others in the latest violence in the capital, once the impregnable stronghold of President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
The bombings on Friday, including one outside a mosque that killed the policemen, came as regime forces and rebels clashed in southern neighbourhoods of Damascus.
In Geneva, the new president of the Red Cross said Friday he held "positive" talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad this week to gain access to detainees and free up deliveries of badly needed aid to hundreds of thousands of people. The exodus of Syrians fleeing violence — whether to seek refuge elsewhere within Syria or in neighbouring countries — has dramatically accelerated in recent months as fighting has turned more brutal across the country.
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Peter Maurer, president of the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross, said his talks with the president were "sober, to the point" and "clearly focused on humanitarian needs," such as releasing deliveries of food, medicine and other supplies to hundreds of thousands of people.
Maurer told reporters he also visited rural areas around Damascus where residents told him "horrific accounts of armed attacks" and left him shocked.
Apart from the Red Cross relief efforts, the UN refugee agency says it is scaling up emergency operations for 200,000 people inside Syria who have been displaced by fighting and need medical care, shelter and schools. Agency spokesman Adrian Edwards says its hotlines have been getting tens of thousands of calls for help and its teams have been handing out household items and counselled people at 29 shelters around Damascus during the past two weeks.
The agency says it also is helping well more than 200,000 refugees in neighbouring countries.
Civil war has claimed more than 23,000 lives
Syria's uprising against Assad began in March last year, when protests calling for political change met a violent government crackdown. Many in the opposition have since taken up arms as the conflict has transformed into a civil war that activists say has killed more than 23,000 people. The government says more than 4,000 security officers are among the dead.
For more than a year after the uprising against Assad's rule began, Damascus stayed relatively quiet. Then in July, rebels launched a bold attack, capturing several neighbourhoods. Government forces regained control of most of them but they still fight rebels almost daily in parts of the capital. At the same time, there has been a string of bombings, mainly targeting security personnel.
The first bomb on Friday went off outside the Rukniyeh Mosque as worshippers were leaving weekly prayers in the northern neighbourhood of Rukneddine. Officials at the scene said the bomb was placed on a motorcycle. State TV said five policemen were killed, though the officials at the scene put the number at six. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
The blast, across the street from the mosque, damaged six cars and a nearby clinic, collapsing a wall over the entrance. Blood could be seen on the clinic wall and street, an Associated Press reporter at the scene said.
"I heard the strong explosion then saw bricks flying in the air. May God destroy those who placed this bomb here," said Rukneddine resident Mohammed Hamsho, 18.
2nd blast strikes hours later
About two hours later, a car bomb exploded in the upscale neighbourhood of Mazzeh between the buildings of the Information Ministry and Justice Ministry, which are about 100 metres apart, state TV said. The blast caused no casualties but damaged nearby vehicles. Friday is the weekend in Syria and institutions are usually closed.
The blasts came five days after two bombs exploded near the offices of the Syrian military's joint chiefs of staff in Damascus, slightly wounding four officers.
Troops clashed with rebels in two southern Damascus neighbourhoods on Friday, including Kazaz, a tightly controlled area that is home to offices of several Syrian security agencies, activists said. There was no immediate word on casualties in the Kazaz fighting but at least four soldiers were killed in clashes with rebels in the Tadamon district, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Local Coordination Committees said.
The Observatory said the 16 bodies of men were found in the Damascus suburb of Deir al-Asafir, which it said was subjected to a major operation by the regime in the past few days. "Search is continuing for more bodies," the group said.
Palestinian refugee camp shelled
Also in Damascus, several people were either killed or wounded when a Palestinian refugee camp was shelled, activists and state media reported.
The LCC said Syrian troops shelled the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk. State-run Syrian TV confirmed violence in the camp but blamed "armed terrorists" who it said fired rockets into the camp killing 10 people. It added that troops were chasing the gunmen. The regime refers to rebel fighters as terrorists.
When Syria's unrest began, the country's half-million Palestinians at first struggled to remain on the sidelines. But in the past months, young Palestinian refugees — enraged by mounting violence and moved by Arab Spring calls for greater freedoms — have been taking to the streets and even joining the rebels.
At least 60 people were killed in violence Friday around the country, from Idlib and Aleppo in the north to Deir el-Zour in the east to Hama and Homs in the centre as well as Daraa to the south, the Observatory and LCC said.
Defections from regime continue
In Turkey, Brig.-Gen. Awad Ahmad al-Ali, who headed the Damascus office of Syria's Criminal Security Directorate, declared that he defected and joined the opposition.
Al-Ali appeared in a video aired on Al-Arabiya television saying that he is abandoning his job and defecting "from the unjust and illegitimate regime." Sitting in front of a revolution flag, al-Ali added that the regime carried out "evil and horrifying killings that were not even committed by the worst regimes throughout history."
Thousands of members of Syria's military and security forces have defected and left to Turkey in the past month including more than 25 generals.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan blasted the Syrian regime during an international conference on peace in the Middle East that was held in Istanbul Friday.
"In Syria, there is a cruel, oppressive dictator, a regime that is carrying out massacres with heavy weapons against its own people," said Erdogan, one of Assad's harshest critics. "But there are those who remain silent, who applaud and even invite this oppression simply for sectarian considerations."
Erdogan is a Sunni, like most members of the Syrian opposition who are trying remove Assad's regime, which is dominated by members of the president's minority Alawite sect.