Syria twin bombings claimed by Islamist group
A video posted online in the name of a shadowy militant group late claimed responsibility for twin suicide bombings in the Syrian capital this week that killed 55 people.
In the video, a group calling itself the Al-Nusra Front says the bombing was in response to attacks on residential areas by the regime of President Bashar Assad.
"We fulfilled our promise to respond with strikes and explosions," a distorted voice says, reading black text that rolls across a white screen while Islamic chanting plays in the background.
The Al-Nusra Front has claimed past attacks through statements posted on militant websites. Little is known about the group, although Western intelligence officials say it could be a front for an al-Qaeda branch operating in Iraq. The video's authenticity could not be independently verified.
Friday's video said the Damascus attack was in response to Syrian government attacks on residential areas.
"We promised the regime in our last declaration to respond to its killing of families, women, children and old men in a number of Syrian provinces, and here we kept our promise," it says.
The video, which says it was made on May 10, the day of the Damascus bombings, also strikes a sectarian tone, calling for the protection of Sunni Muslims and threatening revenge against Alawites, the Shia offshoot to which Assad and many members of his security services belong.
"We tell this regime: Stop your massacres against the Sunni people. If not, you will bear the sin of the Alawites. What is coming will be more calamitous, God willing," it says. It also advises Sunnis to avoid security offices — a veiled threat of future bombings.
Meanwhile, at least eight people died on Saturday, according to activists. The deaths came in the province of Idlib in the northwest as well as central Hama province. Also in Idlib, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Al Jazeera that four soldiers were killed in clashes between armed rebel groups and regime forces in Hantuten village.
That news came as the UN mission announced that it now had 145 military observers on the ground, about half of the 300 authorized by the Security Council. The observers are supported by 56 civilian staff.
Extremists make inroads
Western officials say there is little doubt that Islamist extremists, some associated with al-Qaeda, have made inroads in Syria as instability has spread since the start of the uprising against President Bashar Assad 14 months ago. But much remains unclear about their numbers, influence and activities inside Syria.
Also on Saturday, Turkey said two Turkish journalists who were detained in Syria were on their way home.
Turkey's Anadolu agency said a plane carried Adem Ozkose and Hamit Coskun on Saturday to Iran, where a Turkish plane will return them to Turkey.
The pair were reported missing in early March, and were not heard from until last weekend when they made brief telephone calls to their families from detention in Damascus. Iran mediated between Turkey and Syria to release the journalists.
Their presence adds a wild card element to the Syria conflict that could further hamper international efforts to end it.
World powers are backing a peace plan presented by international envoy Kofi Annan that calls for a cease-fire to allow for talks on a political solution to the conflict.
Syria's uprising started in March 2011 with mostly peaceful protests inspired by successful revolts elsewhere calling for political reform. The Syrian government responded with a brutal crackdown, prompting many in the opposition to take up arms to defend themselves and attack government troops.
The UN said weeks ago that more than 9,000 people have been killed. Hundreds more have died since. Overall violence as dropped as the observer mission has grown, though daily attacks continue.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime troops shelled and raided villages in the central provinces of Hama and Homs on Saturday as well as in Idlib in the north, killing at least three people.
The group, which relies on activists in Syria, also said rebels and regime forces were clashing outside of Damascus and in Idlib province, where an attack on a military convoy killed four soldiers.