BEIRUT — Suicide bombers targeted the main Syrian military headquarters in the heart of Damascus Wednesday in the most significant attack in the capital in more than two months, triggering scenes of panic and widespread gunfire in which a reporter for an Iranian television channel was killed.
The early-morning blasts outside the Syrian army’s General Staff Command confirmed that Syria’s rebels remain capable of penetrating the upper echelons of the country’s military establishment. State television said the attack was carried out by suicide bombers and broadcast security-camera footage showing a white van exploding on the main highway just outside the headquarters’ perimeter fence. Moments later, there was a second explosion within the grounds that the anchor said was also caused by a suicide bomb.
Videos posted on YouTube showed clouds of dense, black smoke billowing over the headquarters, located beside the city’s heavily guarded Umayyad Square, where numerous sensitive government institutions are based. Four guards were killed, and 14 other people were wounded, state media said.
The bombs were smaller than in some of the large-scale suicide attacks this year in which dozens of people died, but the attack resonated across a city accustomed to explosions and gunfire because of its proximity to the military’s top command. It was the closest the rebels challenging the rule of President Bashar Assad have come to reaching his inner circle since a bombing in July killed four of his top security advisers, including the defense minister and Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat.
Reports that the current defense minister and several military commanders were injured in this latest attack were groundless, Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi told state television, blaming the attack on terrorists.
There were at least two claims of responsibility. The Free Syrian Army, the umbrella group for defected soldiers, said on its Facebook page that one of its fighters blew himself up at the compound gate, allowing four others to enter, and that a car bomb killed everyone in the courtyard. It also said informers had helped plant bombs inside the compound a day earlier.
An Islamist group, Tajamo Ansar al-Islam, also claimed responsibility. None of the claims of either group could be independently verified.
The level of violence has soared over the summer months as the rebels strengthened, the government escalated its crackdown, and a UN peace mission collapsed. The number killed since the revolt erupted 18 months ago is now about 30,000, according to activist groups.
Among dozens reportedly killed nationwide Wednesday were at least 40 residents of the Damascus suburb of Thiabiyeh, near the international airport, who were apparently shot execution-style by government forces, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in Britain. Video posted on YouTube showed rows of corpses wrapped in blankets, all of them men of military age who had been shot in the head. Some reports said that the toll was far higher and that women and children were among those killed.
The bodies were discovered as panic spread following the bombings in Damascus. Residents said the blasts were followed by sustained gunfire lasting for at least two hours around the building and elsewhere across the city as ambulances hurtled through the streets.
Iran’s English-language Press TV reported that its correspondent Maya Naser, a Syrian national, had been killed by a sniper’s bullet. The channel’s Damascus bureau chief Hossein Morteza, who also runs the bureau of sister channel al-Alam, was injured, Press TV said on its website.
It was unclear, however, whether the gunfire was caused by panicked security forces firing into the air or clashes with rebels in the area.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the shooting was apparently carried out by government forces ‘‘in order to open the roads for the ambulances and to prevent an approach to the area.’’