DAMASCUS - Thousands of regime backers massed at a mosque in the Syrian capital yesterday for funeral prayers for police officers killed in a Damascus bombing, as the government vowed to respond with an “iron fist’’ to security threats.
Coffins bearing 11 officers, covered with Syrian flags, were brought into the Al-Hassan mosque for the prayers, a day after the explosion ripped through a Damascus intersection, killing 26 people and wounding 63. Officials said the attack was a suicide bombing, the second in two weeks to hit the normally quiet Syrian capital.
The government of President Bashar Assad has touted the attacks as proof that it is being targeted by terrorists. 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 Assad. The bombings have coincided with a mission by Arab League observers investigating Syria’s crackdown on the protest.
In the hours after the bombing, Syrian troops opened fire on demonstrators holding anti-Assad sit-ins in two parts of the country, killing one and wounding at least 20, activists said. In other shootings, security forces killed at least six more people, activists said.
Friday’s blast took place in the Midan neighborhood of Damascus, one of the few parts of the heavily controlled capital that has seen protests against the regime.
The Al-Hassan mosque, where yesterday’s prayers took place, has been a launching point for antigovernment protest marches after weekly prayers. But yesterday, the mosque was swamped by Assad supporters.
Thousands of mourners outside the mosque chanted, “Freedom became terrorism. We are not scared of America, the mother of terrorism.’’ Others chanted, “The people want the state of emergency,’’ referring to the decades-old emergency laws that Assad lifted in April as part of reforms he promised.
A group of women wore black shirts emblazoned with Assad’s picture, labeled “the Shield of Syria,’’ as police officers lined up to salute their slain comrades. Information Minister Adnan Mahmoud told reporters inside the mosque that the explosion “is part of the scheme based on terrorism and killing that has been targeting Syria since nine months.’’
The minister of religious affairs, Abdul-Sattar al-Sayyed, said these “criminal groups that carried out this attack would not undermine our steadfastness.’’
The violence marks a dramatic escalation of bloodshed in Syria as Arab League observers tour the country to investigate Assad’s deadly crackdown on dissent. The monitoring mission will issue its first findings today at a meeting in Cairo.