BEIRUT: Syrian rebels claimed a victory Wednesday in their fight against President Bashar Assad’s rule after launching a double bomb attack in Damascus, killing at least four people.
There were conflicting details about the attacks, which struck the military headquarters at Ummayad Square around 7 a.m., leaving the building in flames and sending a plume of smoke over the Damascus skyline.
An Islamist rebel group, Tajamo Ansar al-Islam, claimed responsibility for what they said was a suicide attack launched in collaboration with other rebel forces, killing five of its fighters, including the suicide bomber, and injuring dozens. A statement from the group said the bomber blew up his vehicle at the entrance of the headquarters, coinciding with the detonation of bombs planted in the third floor of the building. “The jihadist heroes have carried out ... a complex suicide operation at 6:55 a.m. against the headquarters of the general staff of Assad’s criminal gang,” the statement said.
They added that the strike was executed in cooperation with “honorable” army officers and said four of their fighters were killed in ensuing gunbattles.
The rebel Free Syrian Army’s Military Council in Damascus also claimed responsibility on its Facebook page.
Ahmad al-Khatib, spokesman for the FSA’s Military Council in Damascus, told Reuters the attack had been staged with two car bombs by several Free Syrian Army battalions working with an officer and his troops on the inside, but denied they were driven by suicide attackers.
The army, in a response carried by state media agency SANA, said “armed terrorist gangs” carried out two car bombings at the security complex, killing four guards and wounding 14 civilians, contrasting with earlier claims from state television which reported there were no casualties in the attack.
“All our colleagues in the military leadership, the army staff command and the Defense Ministry are unhurt,” Information Minister Omran Zoabi told Syrian TV, adding that the bomb appeared to have been placed inside the complex.
“As usual they failed to achieve their goal,” he added.
Activist Samir al-Shami said the main explosions were caused by a suicide car bomb and second car loaded with explosives on the perimeter of the complex.
Residents and activists told The Daily Star intense gunfire had broken out for hours immediately following two loud explosions. “I heard two very loud explosions,” activist Alexia told The Daily Star via telephone from Damascus. “Then the shooting started at all the checkpoints.”
In the ensuing chaos, Iran’s Press TV correspondent Maya Nasser was killed, and its Damascus bureau chief Hussein Mortada, from Lebanon, was wounded while covering the attack.
Press TV’s newsroom director, Hamid Reza Emadi, told AFP that Nasser, 33, was killed by insurgent sniper fire while reporting live. “We hold Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar responsible for the murder of our correspondent in Damascus.”
The explosions came on a particularly bloody day for Syria. Among 290 people killed across the country Wednesday, according to activist network the Local Coordination Committees, were 16 people from two families, “executed” by pro-government militiamen when they stormed the Barzeh neighborhood in Damascus at dawn.
“Residents found them in the morning after the area was stormed overnight,” said activist Alexia. In what she described as another “massacre” just outside the city, pro-government militiamen reportedly killed more than 40 people in Dhiyabia, including women and children.
Video published by activists showed rows of bloodied corpses wrapped in blankets. The victims shown on camera appeared to be male, from 20-year-olds to elderly men, with some apparently shot in the neck and head. The Observatory said it could confirm 40 people dead.
The latest violence came as world leaders met at the United Nations, where deadlock over Syria has blocked a united response to the conflict which the Observatory says has now killed 30,000 people in 18-months.
Speaking at the General Assembly, Egyptian President Mohammad Mursi described the crisis as a “tragedy” that “we all must end” but said he was opposed to outside intervention.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appealed to the “paralyzed” Security Council to make a new attempt to reach an accord to end the Syria conflict.
“The atrocities mount while the Security Council remains paralyzed, and I would urge that we try once again to find a path forward” so that the council can try to end the violence in Syria and stop it spreading to other countries,” Clinton said.
Russia and China have three times vetoed U.N.Security Council resolutions which could have led to sanctions on Assad’s government, accusing the West of seeking only regime change.
In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin again rebutted calls for an intervention, saying it was counterproductive and could lead to an escalation of violence. “Incitement of violence in different forms in order to change the regime only pushes the situation into a dead end. Violence creates violence,” he told foreign ambassadors at the Kremlin, saying the U.N. Charter was meant to be used to solve problems “through negotiations, without external interference.”