Syrian bomb attacks cause people to rally around Bashar al-Assad’s regime
If you looked carefully, in the folds of a plastic bin bag, you could make out part of a human head, a mass of shredded flesh and innards, and two bare feet.
That was all that was left of the suicide bomber blamed by Syria’s government for committing mass murder in Damascus on Friday when the Guardian reached the scene.
At least 11 people were killed in the attack, which came on another Friday of mass protests across the country. Grisly images of the aftermath of the bombing in a southern suburb of the Syrian capital were broadcast repeatedly on state media, along with claims that al-Qaida was responsible.
The atrocity shifted attention away from Homs, Hama, Idlib, Dera’a and other towns and villages where Syrians demanding the fall of the regime have been gunned down by Bashar al-Assad’s security forces for the past 10 months. But protests continued, including a rare demonstration in Aleppo, the country’s second city, where crowds appeared to be bigger than on previous Fridays, perhaps because of the presence of Arab League monitors.
In Damascus, government officials and state media said the bomber had detonated an explosive belt next to three buses bringing policemen to Midan, in the south of the city, just before weekly anti-regime demonstrations were due to start.
The dead and more than 60 injured were said to be “mostly civilians”, the state news agency Sana reported. The interior minister described the modus operandi and intention to cause mass casualties as having the “fingerprints of al-Qaida”.
The attack triggered furious condemnation from the regime and loud demonstrations of support for Assad, who is under mounting international pressure over the crackdown on the 10-month uprising which is now the bloodiest episode of the Arab spring, with the UN estimating at least 5,000 people have died.
The unknown bomber’s remains were left at the scene for several hours afterwards before being removed for DNA testing. These and other body parts were repeatedly displayed for journalists who were bussed in by the Syrian ministry of information.
The incident came as Arab observers again fanned out across the country to monitor violence and gather testimony about human rights violations. The Arab League is due to discuss the monitoring mission on Sunday amid mounting complaints that it is not being effective and is providing a figleaf for continuing repression.
“This is Syrian blood,” one security official screamed for the cameras as he waved a surgical glove oozing with gore. “This is the crime of the Arab League.”
The bomber targeted a police station next to an elementary school and a busy main road, with a mosque nearby and shops all around. The device was detonated at a traffic light under a concrete flyover, splattering blood high above, shattering windows and destroying several police cars.
“This place is the heart of the Midan neighbourhood,” said Omar Mikdad, a correspondent for the Ba’ath newspaper. “On a Friday morning people here are out buying food and going to the mosque. Whoever did this knew that a lot of people would die.”
Locals said it was also the exact spot where riot police were routinely deployed to deal with Friday protests. Demonstrators, some waving flags, came in their hundreds to shout slogans, chanting “the people want Bashar al-Assad” and “Allah, Syria, Bashar, and that’s it” – with its echo of support for Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.
“I heard the explosion,” screamed a distraught Jamila Qabalan, a middle-aged woman who lives nearby. “What is happening in this country? Traitors are spilling Syrian blood and we are afraid.”
Speaking on TV, another man said: “Only dogs and pigs would do this. It’s haram [forbidden].” Others blamed Israel.
Syrian opposition activists expressed doubts about the official version of events, suggesting it was convenient for the regime to be able to focus on terrorism to divert attention from the popular protests – despite evidence of the militarisation of the uprising. But claims that the bombing had somehow been staged were impossible to check.
Late last month Syrian officials blamed bombings that killed 44 people in two Damascus security installations on al-Qaida. Western officials have described those as professional operations employing military explosives used by jihadi groups in Iraq and elsewhere.
“People were just getting over the first suicide bombings – and now this,” said a western diplomat. “It’s grim.”
Initial reports said 25 had died in the Midan attack but the interior minister later amended this figure to 11, amid suggestions that the difference was due to the difficulty of identifying the victims from remains. Sana said 15 others could also have died.
Information ministry officials were unable to provide the names of the dead and injured or to say in which hospitals they were being treated. But Sana showed horrific pictures of dead and wounded on its website.
Ahmad Asi, a reserve policeman from Aleppo, had just got off one of the buses. “I was crossing the road and was going to have breakfast. I heard the explosion,” he said. He survived with a cut to the bridge of his nose but his friend Haydar al-Hussain, another reservist, was killed.
Beyond their fury, Assad supporters suggested that the incident would only harden the government’s resolve. “I support Assad because he is right,” insisted Abu Ja’afar, a member of the same minority Alawite sect as the president. “Yes, things can change in Syria, through politics and by dialogue, but not by bombing. It’s shameful. Let these people go and blow themselves up in Israel, not here.”