World

Syrian blast kills 25 at Damascus protest site

A bomb explodes at a busy Damascus intersection, killing 25 people and wounding dozens in the second major attack in the Syrian capital in as many weeks, officials say.

Regime, protesters trade blame for suicide attack at crowded intersection

A bomb exploded Friday at a busy Damascus intersection, killing 25 people and wounding dozens in the second major attack in the Syrian capital in as many weeks, officials said, vowing to respond to further security threats with an "iron fist."

The government blamed "terrorists," saying a suicide bomber had blown himself up in the crowded Midan district. But the country's opposition demanded an independent investigation, accusing forces loyal to the Syrian regime of being behind the bombing to tarnish a 10-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

"Is there anything worse than these crimes?" said Majida Jomaa, a 30-year-old housewife who ran to the streets after hearing the explosion around 11 a.m. "Is this freedom?"

It was impossible to determine the exact target of the blast, but a police bus was riddled with shrapnel and blood was splattered on its seats, according to Syrian TV video and a government official. Blood also stained the street, which was littered with shattered glass.

The bomber "detonated himself with the aim of killing the largest number of people," Interior Minister Mohammed Shaar told reporters. State media said most of the dead were civilians but security forces were also among them.

Attack fits a script, expert says

In a move that critics said supported their argument that the bombing may have been orchestrated by the regime as a ghoulish attempt to manipulate public opinion in favour of Assad, government tour guides led Arab League monitors to view the wounded.

The attack seemed to fit a script, said Nadimj Shehadi, an expert on Mideast politics with the U.K.-based think-tank Chatham House.

A bus for the Syrian riot police forces is seen damaged at the scene of a bombing in the Midan neighbourhood of Damascus, Syria. (SANA/Associated Press)

"You have a narrative by the regime that there is no protest in Syria; there is no politically motivated protest, that it's all terrorists manipulated from abroad," Shehadi said.

[Midan is one of several Damascus neighbourhoods that have seen frequent anti-Assad protests on Fridays since the uprising began in March, inspired by the revolutions around the Arab world.

The violence marks a dramatic escalation of bloodshed in Syria as Arab League observers tour the country to investigate Assad's bloody crackdown on dissent. The monitoring mission will issue its first findings Sunday at a meeting in Cairo.

In a statement, the Interior Ministry vowed to respond to any security threats with an "iron fist."

Syria's state media, SANA, put the initial death toll at 25 and more than 60 wounded. The death toll included 10 confirmed dead and the remains of an estimated 15 others whose bodies had yet to be identified.

"I found bodies on the ground, including one of a man who was carrying two boxes of yogurt," Midan resident Anis Hassan Tinawi, 55, told the Associated Press.

The blast came exactly two weeks after twin bombings targeting intelligence agencies in Damascus killed 44 people. The regime blamed terrorists for those explosions as well.

A Syrian official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to talk publicly to the media, said a smaller bomb exploded Friday in the Damascus suburb of Tal, killing a girl. Security experts dismantled another bomb nearby, he said.

Global condemnation of crackdown

While many of the anti-government protests sweeping the country remain peaceful, the uprising as a whole has become more violent in recent months as frustrated demonstrators take up arms to protect themselves from the steady military assault. An increasing number of army defectors also have launched attacks, killing soldiers and security forces.

5,000 Syrians killed, UN says

The United Nations estimated in December that more than 5,000 people have been killed since the start of the uprising in Syria.

Hundreds more have been killed in the last week alone, while Arab League monitors were meant to be overseeing a peace plan.

The unrest has posed the most serious challenge to the Assad family's 40-year dynasty. The regime's crackdown has led to broad worldwide condemnation and sanctions, eviscerated the economy and left Assad an international pariah just as he was trying to open up his country and modernize the economy.

The protests continued Friday around the country, and security forces killed at least eight people, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, put the death toll at 17.

The Observatory said 50,000 protesters took to the streets in the Damascus suburb of Douma in the largest protest of the day. The numbers were impossible to confirm, however, because Syria has banned most foreign journalists and prevented independent reporting.

Diesel pipeline blast reported

The UN issued a statement Friday condemning the Damascus bombing, saying secretary-general Ban Ki-moon "remains gravely concerned at the deteriorating situation in Syria, where thousands have lost their lives since March and people continue to be killed on a daily basis."

Also Friday, SANA said terrorists blew up a pipeline that carries diesel from the central province of Homs to nearby Hama. There have been several pipeline blasts in recent months, but it is unclear who is behind them.

The government has long contended that the turmoil in Syria is not an uprising but the work of terrorists and foreign-backed armed gangs.

In a sign of just how polarized Syria has become, the opposition questioned the government's allegations that terrorists were behind Friday's attacks and the Dec. 23 bombings.

Opposition leaders suggest the regime itself could have been behind the violence to try to erode support for the uprising and show the Arab League observers that it is a victim in the upheaval. Neither the regime nor the opposition has produced evidence backing their accusations, and no one but Syrian authorities have access to investigate the blasts.

With files from CBC News

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