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Suicide blasts in Syria kill at least 20 troops

BEIRUT (AP) — Twin suicide bombings shook a southern Syrian city on Saturday, killing at least 20 regime troops, an activist group said.

The early morning blasts in Daraa targeted an encampment for government forces in the city, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground.

The explosions were followed by clashes between regime forces and rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad, said the Observatory. Its chief, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said at least 20 soldiers were killed in the blasts but the claim could not be independently verified.

The state-run news agency SANA said the explosions caused multiple casualties and heavy material damage, but did not provide further details.

Daraa was the birthplace of the uprising against Assad, which erupted in March 2011. The conflict began largely with peaceful protests against Assad's rule but turned bloody after rebels took up arms in response to the regime's crackdown.

The crisis has since morphed into a vicious civil war and in recent months, rebels have driven regime forces out of much of a pocket of northwestern Syria and are battling troops in several key cities and towns. The fight has also taken on dangerous sectarian tones between a mainly Sunni opposition and a regime dominated by Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

"I heard two very loud explosions and a third smaller one followed by bursts of gunfire," said Mohammad Abu Houran, an activist in Daraa. He said the first two were likely car bombs and the third a mortar shell or rocket propelled grenade.

Abu Houran said black smoke could be seen over the high-security area, which was sealed off. Heavy shooting could be heard from the area for about 10 minutes after the explosions, he added.

Bombings targeting state security institutions have become frequent in recent months, and military intelligence branches in Damascus and other cities have been hit. Most dramatically in July, rebels detonated explosives inside a high-level crisis meeting in Damascus, killing four top regime officials, including Assad's brother-in-law and the defense minister.

The targeted area is considered a security zone that houses a branch of the country's Military Intelligence as well as an officer's club where dozens of regime forces are based. Around 30 tanks that regime forces use to shell Daraa and surrounding areas are also stationed in a nearby stadium, activists said.

Despite gaining control over large swathes of territory, particularly in the country's north, Syria's rebels are far outgunned by the military, which has increasingly relied on airstrikes against rebel strongholds.

The Syrian opposition, which is deeply divided and plagued by rivalries, says it needs weapons to break the military stalemate and defeat Assad. The rebels' Western backers have been reluctant to send weapons to the opposition fighters, for fear they will fall into the wrong hands.

George Sabra, the newly elected leader of the main opposition bloc, the Syrian National Council, urged the international community on Saturday to support rebels without any conditions.

"Unfortunately, we get nothing from them, except some statements, some encouragement" while Assad's allies "give the regime everything," Sabra told The Associated Press on the sidelines of a weeklong SNC conference in the Qatari capital of Doha.

Sabra was heading an SNC delegation Saturday in talks with rival opposition groups on forging a new, broader and more inclusive opposition leadership group — an idea promoted by Western and Arab backers of those trying to oust Assad.

Syria has dismissed the meeting in Doha, and Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi called it a political folly. In an interview on state-run Syrian TV aired late Friday, al-Zoubi said those who "meet in hotels" abroad are "deluding themselves" if they think they can overthrow the government.

Activists say more than 36,000 people have died in Syria during the nearly 20-month-old conflict.

The Daraa bombings come a day after as many as 11,000 people were said to have fled Syria over just 24 hours, to escape fierce fighting between rebels and government forces — the latest surge of refugees fleeing the civil war.

The flood of Syrians into neighboring Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon was "the highest that we have had in quite some time," said Panos Moumtzis, the U.N. refugee agency's regional coordinator for the region said Friday.

About 2,000 to 3,000 people are fleeing Syria daily, and the recent surge brings the number registered with the UNHCR to more than 408,000, said Moumtzis.

The largest flow into Turkey came from the fighting at Ras al-Ayn in the predominantly Kurdish oil-producing northeastern province of al-Hasaka, where rebels were fighting government forces.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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