BEIRUT: A suicide bomber driving a truck packed with 1.5 tons of explosives killed at least 31 people and wounded dozens in the city of Hama Sunday, state media and a monitoring group reported.
The man blew himself up inside the vehicle on a busy road on the outskirts of the city in central Syria, the SANA news agency said. It blamed “terrorists,” the term it uses to describe rebel forces trying to topple President Bashar Assad.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the attack targeted an army checkpoint, but that most of the dead were civilians.
According to the Observatory, the suicide bomber was from the Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate that has frequently used suicide bombers to attack military and political targets.
Pictures on Syrian TV showed firemen trying to put out huge fires as black smoke rose from charred trucks and cars.
The opposition network Syrian Revolution General Commission said the blast took place at 9 a.m., but did not have a final casualty figure. The group said that a second explosion shook the neighborhood of Qusour, and injured an unspecified number of regime troops, as government ambulances raced to the scene.
The SRGC said the day’s military activity in Hama included regime airstrikes on at least two locations east of the provincial capital, and a claim that the rebel Free Syrian Army destroyed a regime tank.
Rebels also used a car bomb a day earlier to attack a checkpoint on the outskirts of Damascus. The Observatory said 16 government troops were killed in the attack.
Heavy clashes erupted after the blast, and continued Sunday.
Rebels said they seized the first checkpoint, at the Tameco factory, and were now fighting to capture a second one down the road. The checkpoints, to the southeast of the capital, sit between the rebel-held suburb of Mliha and the government-held suburb of Jaramana.
“These checkpoints are [also] the fortress between us and the next air force defense site,” said Nidal, a rebel speaking by Skype. “If we can destroy it we can liberate the base.”
Pro-opposition social media sites posted several videos of rebels in the Tameco factory, an Arab joint venture to produce medicine. Some media maintained that rebel fighters saved boxes of pharmaceutical products from the flames at the facility, including antidotes for sarin, the gas that was believed to have been used in an August chemical weapons strike on nearby suburbs.
Syrian military jets have pounded nearby rebel-held areas. Rebels hold several suburbs ringing the capital but have not made deep inroads into the capital due to a sustained army blockade.
Doctors in one suburb to the west of Damascus, Moadamieh, have reported an increasing number of deaths due to malnutrition.
A fighter in the eastern suburbs said government forces had blocked the main entry point for food and supplies to that region two days ago.
“That is where we used to get our food and flour. If it stays closed, we will be destroyed,” he said, asking not to be identified.
The U.N.’s humanitarian chief called Saturday for a cessation of hostilities in Moadamieh, so that food and vital medical aid could be delivered.
Although some 3,000 people were evacuated last week, “the same number or more remain trapped,” the U.N.’s Valerie Amos said in a statement, noting that continued shelling and fighting were hindering aid workers from reaching the needy in the town.
“I call on all parties to agree an immediate pause in hostilities in Moadamieh to allow humanitarian agencies unhindered access to evacuate the remaining civilians and deliver life-saving treatment and supplies,” Amos said.
“How many more children, women and men will needlessly lose their lives? The humanitarian community has stressed time and time again that people must not be denied life-saving help and that the fighting has to stop,” Amos said.
Late Friday, a State Department spokesperson condemned the regime’s “continued siege of Ghouta and other Damascus suburbs, especially the town of Moadamieh.”
“This siege has led to unprecedented reports of children dying of malnutrition-related causes in areas that are only a few miles from Bashar Assad’s palace in Damascus,” said Jen Psaki. He added an urgent demand that the authorities be allowed “immediate and unfettered humanitarian access to these areas.”