DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Thousands of mourners carrying Syrian flags and pictures of the dead have taken part in a mass funeral for 44 people killed in twin suicide bombings that targeted intelligence agency compounds in Damascus.
The government of President Bashar Assad said a preliminary investigation pointed to al-Qaeda and that the bloodshed and destruction in the capital bolstered its argument that terrorists, rather than true reform-seekers, were behind the anti-government revolt.
The opposition, meanwhile, grew fearful that the regime was taking advantage of the distraction caused by the bombings to move in military reinforcements and prepare for a massive assault on key activist areas in central Syria. Shelling in the city of Homs on Saturday killed at least three people in the Baba Amr district and set several homes and shops ablaze, activists said.
“We believe this is in preparation for a large-scale attack,” said Bassam Ishak, secretary-general of the Syrian National Council opposition group.
In Damascus, mourners carried coffins draped in the red, white and black Syrian flags into the eighth-century Omayyad Mosque, where they were placed on the ground for prayers on Saturday.
“Martyr after martyr, we want nobody but Assad,” they shouted in support of the embattled Syrian president.
The government linked Friday’s bombings to the uprising against Assad’s autocratic rule. They were the first suicide bombings since the unrest began in mid-March, adding new and ominous dimensions to a conflict that has already brought the country to the brink of civil war.
Striking just moments apart, the attackers used powerful car bombs to target the heavily guarded compounds. The explosions shook the capital, which has been relatively untouched by the uprising, and left mutilated and torn bodies amid rubble, twisted debris and burned cars.
Besides the dead, 166 people were wounded.
The opposition has questioned the government’s account and hinted the regime itself could have been behind the attacks, noting they came a day after the arrival of an advance team of Arab League observers investigating Assad’s bloody crackdown of the popular revolt.
Ishak said he feared the bombings “were orchestrated to distract attention from a massive assault today in Homs.”
He said his group reported the information they got from Homs to the Arab League and urged the monitors to head to Homs. “The regime is keeping them in their hotels and delaying their departure for Homs,” he told The Associated Press on the phone from Amman, Jordan.
An Arab League statement from its Cairo headquarters on Saturday said Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby condemned the attacks in Damascus but also expressed particular concern for Homs.
“The secretary-general expresses concern over reports that violent acts are on the rise in Homs city and calls for an immediate cessation of such acts,” the statement said, warning that the violence will affect the success of the fuller observer mission set to arrive in Damascus Monday.
The government has long contended that the turmoil in Syria this year is not an uprising by reform-seekers but the work of terrorists and foreign-backed armed gangs.
Sheik Said al-Bouti, a prominent pro-Assad clergyman in Damascus, blamed the opposition squarely for the attacks.
“This gift has been sent to us by Burhan Ghalioun and his friends,” he said in his funeral sermon Saturday, referring to the head of the Paris-based Syrian National Council.
Women dressed in black wailed Saturday during the funeral procession, which was aired by state-run Syrian TV. Some blamed the emir of Qatar, seen by supporters of Assad as leading the campaign against the regime.
“Those terrorists are funded by the emir of Qatar to kill innocent people, but they won’t succeed,” cried Fawakeh Shaqiri, 56, who was dressed in black and carrying a Syrian flag.
All the coffins Saturday held the names of the bombing victims, except for six coffins carrying the remains of people who had not been identified.
Syrian officials said a suicide attacker detonated his explosives-laden car as he waited behind a vehicle driven by a retired general who was trying to enter a military intelligence building in Damascus’ upscale Kfar Sousa district Friday morning. About a minute later, a second attacker blew up his SUV at the gate of the General Intelligence Agency, the officials said.
Government officials took the Arab League observers to the scene of the explosions and said it supported their accounts of who was behind the violence.
“I wonder, have the covers been removed from the eyes of the Arab League representatives so that they can see who is the real killer and who is the victim?” al-Bouti asked.
The United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed since March, when the uprising began and the regime responded by deploying tanks and troops to crush protests across Syria.
In addition to the deaths in Baba Amr Saturday, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the bodies of four people were found dumped on the streets in Houla, also in Homs province. They showed signs of torture on their bodies, it said.
A fifth person was still alive but in critical condition, according to the group.
They had been detained a day earlier by security forces and pro-government thugs.
“The Observatory calls on the Arab League observers to go immediately to the city of Houla to document this flagrant violation of human rights,” the group said in a statement.