Damascus rush-hour bombings kill 55, wound 400, as activists call for mass protests

Damascus has been the target of a number of bombs in past months. (Reuters)

Fifty-five were killed and nearly 400 others were wounded in two successive powerful explosions that shook the Syrian capital early on Thursday, Syria’s interior ministry said, as both the government and the opposition traded blames over the cause of the bombings.

Syrian activists have called for mass anti-regime demonstrations in Damascus on Friday following the deadly suicide attacks they said were perpetrated by the regime. At least 37 people have been killed by the Syrian forces across the country on Thursday, activists at the Local Coordination Committees told Al Arabiya.

The Syrian state television reported that the two “terrorist attacks” killed and wounded dozens “on the freeway in the south of Damascus.” The television added that the blasts occurred “as people were heading to work and children to school.”

Mangled and smoldering vehicles at the site of an explosion in Damascus. (Reuters)

It showed footage of the blasts with mangled bodies lay in the street amid the carcasses of shouldering vehicles.

Major General Robert Mood, chief of a U.N. observer mission in Syria, visited the site to survey the aftermath, Al Arabiya correspondent reported

Haitham al-Maleh, of the opposition Syrian National Council, accused the regime in Damascus of masterminding the bombings, while London-based Syrian activist and journalist Bassam Jaara described the bombings as “the regime’s response to the U.N. condemnation of its acts.”

Samir Nashar, of the Syrian National Council’s executive branch, said, “The regime is behind this.”

He told AFP the aim of the blasts was to send a warning to U.N. observers monitoring a tenuous truce in Syria that they were in danger and to impress upon the international community that the regime was battling “terrorists.”

Damascus has been the target of a number of bombs in past months as President Bashar al-Assad is faced with a revolt against his regime which his forces are attempting to crush.

The European Union sharply condemned Thursday’s powerful blasts, describing the attacks as “an act of pure terrorism.”

“We strongly condemn the twin bomb attacks,” said Michael Mann, spokesman for EU foreign policy Chief Catherine Ashton

A statement issued by International envoy Kofi Annan's spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said Annan “condemns in the strongest possible terms the attacks that took place earlier today in Damascus.

“He is saddened by the loss of life resulting from the two blasts and extends his condolences to the families of the victims. These abhorrent acts are unacceptable and the violence in Syria must stop.”

From their side, China and Russia urged all parties in Syria to “stop violence”.

“We ask all parties to stop violence and cooperate with (U.N.-Arab League special envoy Kofi) Annan and U.N. special envoys,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters after Beijing talks with counterpart Yang Jiechi.

China’s foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei also called for an end to the violence and condemned a Wednesday bomb attack on U.N. observers in the conflict-torn state that wounded 10 soldiers escorting them.

Lavrov also told reporters that Russia would not change its stance on the Syrian situation.

Beijing and Moscow- both long-standing allies of Damascus- drew international criticism earlier this year for vetoing two U.N. Security Council resolutions against Assad’s regime.

The blasts came a day after a bomb attack on a U.N. observer convoy in the southern city of Daraa, which injured six Syrian troops escorting the vehicles.

Responding to the Daraa attack, U.N. leader Ban Ki-moon warned Syria’s government and opposition there is only a “brief window” to avoid civil war and indicated the future of the ceasefire monitoring mission was in doubt.

Highlighting an “alarming upsurge” of roadside bombs, alongside government attacks, Ban said both sides “must realize that we have a brief window to stop the violence, a brief opportunity to create an opening for political engagement between the government and those seeking change.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that almost 12,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Syria since the revolt, inspired by Arab Spring uprisings, broke out in March last year.

About 800 of them have died since a U.N.-backed truce was supposed to have taken effect on April 12.

Damascus was hit by two blasts on May 6, with three soldiers wounded in one of the attacks. Television footage showed a mangled car destroyed by one of the explosions.

A deadly suicide bombing at Zein al-Abidin mosque in the capital’s central Midan district on April 27 killed 11 people and wounded dozens, according to state media.

An Islamist group calling itself al-Nusra Front had earlier claimed responsibility for a deadly suicide bombing on April 20 near the Syrian city of Hama that targeted a restaurant used by the security forces.

The Syrian authorities regularly blame the blasts on “terrorist groups” accusing them of being behind the violence that has swept the country for the past 14 months.

The opposition accuses regime forces of being behind the bombings in an attempt to discredit protesters demanding the ouster of Assad.

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