BEIRUT: In the first attack to target a campaign event, a mortar bomb slammed into a tent packed with supporters of President Bashar Assad, killing at least 21 people, opposition activists said Friday.
The shelling underscored deep fears in government strongholds that rebels will escalate attacks in an attempt to disrupt the balloting.The 49-year-old president has not made a public appearance in more than a month and was not at the site of the attack late Thursday in the southern city of Deraa.
Many campaign rallies have been held in election tents where nationalistic songs are played and supporters mingle.
Ahmad Masalma, an opposition activist in Deraa, said six such tents – festooned with posters of Assad and Syrian flags – have been set up in the past week in the city, which holds special significance as the birthplace of the uprising against his rule in March 2011.
He criticized the celebratory mood in the tents.
“They have loud music and Dabka,” he said, referring to a traditional foot-stomping dance. “It’s very provocative and an insult to the blood of martyrs.”
He said and another activist who identified himself by his first name, Ahmad, said a Free Syrian Army rebel unit fired a single mortar bomb at the tent in a government-held area, after repeatedly warning civilians to stay away. Deraa is divided into rebel-held and government-held sectors.
He said about 100 people, including members of pro-Assad militias, officers and employees, were in the tent when it was hit in the Matar district.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on activists on the ground for its reports, said 21 people, including 11 civilians, were killed. Masalma put the death toll at 25, saying the attack “set the tent ablaze and sent shrapnel flying everywhere.”
State media confirmed the mortar attack, saying it killed and wounded an unspecified number of civilians.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the attack and reiterated his opposition to the indiscriminate use of any weapons by any party against civilians.
Deraa Governor Khaled Hannus described the attack as a “massacre” and “a crime by terrorists meant to prevent Syrians from taking part in the presidential election.”
Speaking on Syrian TV, he vowed Syrians would be undeterred, insisting that “every honorable citizen” in Deraa would vote for Assad.
Rebels trying to overthrow Assad frequently fire mortar bombs into major cities, including Damascus, from opposition-held suburbs.
But Thursday’s attack was the first to target an election event, raising security concerns for those planning to vote. It came as government forces entered Aleppo’s Central Prison, breaking a yearlong rebel siege and allowing Assad’s forces to close in on a nearby rebel command center.
In a statement Friday, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said “a number of prisoners and detainees, in particular 53 political detainees, whose identity is known [to the U.N.] are at imminent risk” in the facility.
Separately, the head of the opposition-in-exile National Coalition said Russia and China had given the regime a “license to kill” Thursday by vetoing a draft resolution in the Security Council to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court.
In a statement, Ahmad Jarba, the president of the National Coalition, urged the two countries – which for the fourth time had blocked resolutions on the Syrian conflict – to “halt their support for the criminal regime by blocking international efforts aimed at seeing justice in Syria.”