BEIRUT - Two suicide car bombs exploded outside government offices in Damascus yesterday, killing at least 44 people in what appeared to be the most brazen and deadly attacks against the government since the start of the uprising in Syria in March.
State-run television said the Al Qaeda terrorist network was possibly to blame for the first suicide car bombings in the nine-month uprising against authoritarian President Bashar Assad.
The Interior Ministry said in a statement that 44 people were killed and 166 wounded in the coordinated attacks, which occurred within minutes of each other. The dead included civilians and members of the security forces.
For months, Syrian officials have consistently portrayed their opponents - peaceful demonstrators and armed rebels alike - as terrorists and thugs, orchestrated by foreign opponents of the Syrian government.
In a news conference after the attacks, Interior Minister Faysal Mekdad quickly suggested the attack vindicated the government’s view, as it released an unusual number of graphic photographs and video of the carnage.
“We said it from the beginning, this is terrorism,’’ the Associated Press quoted him as saying. “They are killing the army and civilians.’’
Just as quickly, government opponents raised questions about whether the government itself might have played a part in the attacks, noting that the buildings, in the capital’s upscale Kfar Sousa district, were heavily guarded. “How can Qaeda launch such an operation in a very tight security place?’’ said an antigovernment activist named Moaz, who lives in Damascus. “It’s really a play.’’
Residents said the explosions, at about 10:15 a.m., were heard miles away and were followed by gunfire. Pictures and video released by Syrian state media showed a large hole in one of the buildings, burned cars, and rescuers carrying bodies on blankets.
Capping one of the deadliest weeks in Syria in months, the bombings occurred hours before thousands of protesters were set to demonstrate against an Arab League peace plan to end the violence.
The day before, delegates from the Arab League traveled to Damascus to start monitoring the government’s promise to end its violent suppression of the nine-month-old uprising. The visit is intended to set the ground rules for a mission that is supposed to bring hundreds of observers to Syria in the coming weeks.
Human rights activists said the government was continuing its assault on the Jebel al-Zawiyah area of northwestern Syria, near Turkey’s border, where at least 160 people have reportedly been killed this week.
The assault, using helicopters and tanks, appeared aimed at army defectors trying to create a rebel stronghold, with supply routes across the Turkish border.
The highest toll was reported in Kafr Oweid, a village. A video posted on the Internet on Thursday was said by activists to show the bodies of dozens of men killed in the village, many with badly mangled faces. The video, posted by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in London, showed at least 43 bodies.
Opposition figures said the government was trying to silence pockets of resistance before the observers’ visit. They expressed growing concern about the Arab League mission, questioning whether it would be robust enough to detect what they said was a campaign of deadly violence by Assad’s security forces.
Turkey added strong criticism on Thursday to the international condemnation of Syria’s latest crackdown. A statement by the Turkish Foreign Ministry urged Syria to end its “policy of oppression.’’
US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Washington condemns the bombings “in the strongest terms.’’ He said it was crucial that the attack not impede the work of the Arab League observers and that the regime must “cooperate fully and quickly’’ with it.
The United Nations says that at least 5,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict. On Thursday, Avaaz, a human rights group that helps document protests, released a higher estimate, saying it had collected the names of 6,237 people who had been killed.