Syrian officials blame protest movement for ‘terrorist and criminal’ train crash
A passenger train derailed and caught fire in central Syria Saturday, killing the driver and injuring 14 passengers, after “saboteurs” tore out part of the tracks, Syrian officials said.
Authorities quickly seized on the incident to blame the four-month-old uprising against President Bashar Assad, saying gunmen and criminals were taking advantage of demonstrations to commit terrorist acts targeting innocent people. No evidence was provided to support those claims.
Ghassan Mustafa Abdul-Aal, the governor of the flashpoint city of Homs near the crash site, called it a “terrorist and criminal” act and said it was a “clear message” to everyone who says the protest movement calling for President Assad’s ouster is peaceful.
Syrian authorities have unleashed a brutal crackdown in an effort to crush the revolt, and activists say more than 1,600 civilians have died since the protests erupted in mid-March. The government blames the unrest on terrorists and foreign extremists, not true reform-seekers, and has taken pains to portray itself as the only guardian against civil war.
The train, which was carrying 480 passengers and five crew members, was traveling from the northeastern city of Aleppo to the capital Damascus.
Officials said the saboteurs ripped up a section of the tracks at Al Souda about three miles (five kilometers) from the central city of Homs, causing the train to derail and the front carriage to catch fire in the crash. The driver was killed instantly and 14 passengers were injured, rail officials said.
The Information Ministry took Syrian journalists to the site to survey the damage - several white-and-red carriages that had jumped the tracks and one overturned and charred carriage.
The journalists were shown tire tracks left by motorcycles that officials claimed the saboteurs used to reach the tracks. The rails themselves were ripped apart using what appeared to be wrenches.
“This crime was meant to kill 485 Syrian citizens today,” said George Al Qaabari, head of the Syrian railway. “We ask the American and French ambassadors who say the protests are peaceful, is this peaceful?”
Two weeks ago, the United States and French ambassadors angered the Syrian government by visiting a city that has become the center of the uprising against President Bashar President Assad’s regime to express support for the Syrian people to demonstrate peacefully.
Mr. Al Qaabari alleged the saboteurs chose Saturday, when many people would be returning from their weekend break to Damascus, for maximum damage. He said it was “divine intervention” that kept the loss of live to a minimum.
The Interior Ministry called on Syrians to come forth with any information on the “saboteurs and criminals who are using the protests as a cover to carry out terrorist acts.”
The regime has banned nearly all foreign media and restricted coverage of the uprising, making it nearly impossible to independently verify events on the ground or casualty figures.
The area of central Syria and Homs in particular has been at the heart of the uprising.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians across the country defied the violent government crackdown Friday, insisting they will not be terrified into submission through bullets, mass arrests and more than four months of attacks by security forces. At least five people were killed, activists said, as security forces used batons, bullets and tear gas to disperse protesters in several places.
Friday marked a clear attempt by the opposition to present a united front.
The Syrian conflict has become a test of wills between protesters emboldened by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, and an entrenched family dynasty.
Two special advisers to United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon warned that there was a “serious possibility” that Syria has committed crimes against humanity.
In a statement, Francis Deng, the adviser on preventing genocide, and Edward Luck, the adviser of the responsibility to protect civilians in conflict, pointed Friday to “persistent reports of widespread and systematic human rights violations by Syrian security forces responding to anti-government protests across the country.”