Beirut, Lebanon – Suicide attackers detonated two powerful car bombs outside government offices in Damascus on Friday, in what appeared to be the most brazen and deadly attacks against the government since the start of the uprising in Syria in March. Dozens were killed at the State Security Directorate headquarters and another security installation, SANA, the government news agency, reported.
The news agency said that while some soldiers were killed, most of the victims were civilians. Faisal Mekdad, the deputy foreign minister, was quoted by The Associated Press as saying that 30 people were killed and 100 wounded in the attacks, coordinated within minutes of each other.
In a statement, SANA said an initial investigation showed the car bombings “carried the blueprints of Al Qaeda,” though it did not provide any further detail. It appeared to be the first use of car bombs — a frequent and deadly means of attack in neighboring Iraq — in the Syrian conflict.
For months, Syrian officials have consistently portrayed their opponents — peaceful demonstrators and armed rebels alike — as terrorists and thugs, orchestrated by foreign opponents of the Syrian government. In a news conference after the attacks, Mr. Mekdad quickly suggested that the attack vindicated the government’s view, as it released an unusual number of graphic photographs and video of the carnage.
“We said it from the beginning, this is terrorism,” he said, according to The A.P. “They are killing the army and civilians.”
Just as quickly, government opponents raised questions about whether the government itself might have played a part in the attacks, noting that the buildings, in the capital’s upscale Kafar Sousah district, were heavily guarded. “How can Qaeda launch such an operation in a very tight security place?” said an antigovernment activist named Moaz, who lives in Damascus. “It’s really a play.”
Residents said the explosions, at about 10:15 a.m., were heard miles away and were followed by gunfire. Video broadcast by Syrian television showed rescuers carrying mangled bodies on blankets, bloody debris and a large hole in one of the buildings. The state news agency posted photos of severed limbs and burned-out cars.
Capping one of the deadliest weeks in Syria in months, the bombings on Friday occurred hours before thousands of protesters were set to demonstrate against an Arab League peace plan to end the violence.
The day before, delegates from the Arab League traveled to Damascus to start monitoring the government’s promise to end its violent suppression of the nine-month-old uprising. The visit is intended to set the ground rules for a mission that is supposed to bring hundreds of observers to Syria in the coming weeks.
Human rights activists said the government was continuing its assault on the Jebel al-Zawiyah area of northwestern Syria, near Turkey’s border, where at least 160 people have reportedly been killed this week.
The assault, using helicopters and tanks, appeared aimed at army defectors trying to create a rebel stronghold, with supply routes across the Turkish border.
The highest toll was reported in the village of Kafr Oweid. A video posted on the Internet on Thursday was said by activists to show the bodies of dozens of men killed in the village, many with badly mangled faces. The video, posted by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in London, showed at least 43 bodies.
Opposition figures said the government was trying to silence pockets of resistance before the observers’ visit. They expressed growing concern about the Arab League mission, questioning whether it would be robust enough to detect what they said was a campaign of deadly violence by President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces.
Turkey added strong criticism on Thursday to the international condemnation of Syria’s latest crackdown. A statement by the Turkish Foreign Ministry urged Syria to end its “policy of oppression.”
The United Nations says that at least 5,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict. On Thursday, Avaaz, a human rights group that helps document protests, released a higher estimate, saying it had collected the names of 6,237 people who had been killed, including more than 800 women and children and 917 members of the government forces.
Casualty figures in Syria have been nearly impossible to confirm. Journalists and human rights groups are not free to move around the country, and there are wide disparities between the claims of the government and those of opposition groups, and between the claims of different networks of human rights activists.
The observers are supposed to monitor Mr. Assad’s compliance with a plan for him to withdraw his forces from residential areas and to release political prisoners. The head of the delegation, Samir Seif el-Yazal, said it would work with Syrian officials to decide where to send the observers, The Associated Press reported. A team of military and human rights experts is scheduled to arrive in a few days.
But human rights activists said there was still no final list of observers and no clear rules for the mission. Wissam Tarif, the Arab world campaigner for Avaaz, who said he was a candidate for an observer post, said the delegation was still working out details, including whether observers would travel with their own security.
Opposition groups have also criticized the decision to name a Sudanese general to lead the mission — Lt. Gen. Muhammad Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, a former head of military intelligence who served as a coordinator among the Sudanese government, the United Nations and African Union peacekeepers in Darfur.
Ammar al-Wawi, a former colonel in the Syrian Army who defected to the rebels, said: “We are suspicious about these observers. Do you send a veterinarian to do a Caesarean section?”
General Dabi told Reuters that the observers would work “with complete transparency.”
Across Syria on Thursday, at least 35 people were killed, including 25 in the city of Homs and 7 in Idlib, near Jebel al-Zawiyah, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an opposition umbrella group. A militia of army defectors, the Free Syrian Army, said that at least 70 recent defectors were killed this week, and that groups of defectors were hiding in the mountains, surrounded by government forces.