BEIRUT – In a dramatic twist in the nine-month uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad, government officials said Friday that two suicide car bombers detonated hundreds of pounds of explosives in front of buildings used by intelligence agencies in the heart of the capital.
Officials quickly pointed the finger at al-Qaida, saying the dramatic escalation in violence confirms their contention that armed terrorists are behind the unrest.
To reinforce the point, state television broadcast video of mangled body parts, burned-out vehicles and bloodied pavement against an action-movie-like soundtrack. The Interior Ministry said 44 people were killed and 166 injured.
But many opposition activists accused the government of staging the entire scene for an advance team from the Arab League, which had arrived hours before to prepare for an observer mission to determine whether Syria is fulfilling its pledge to end a deadly crackdown on anti-government protesters who have been staging major demonstrations since March.
The Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists who organize protests and report on the violence, said security forces killed as many as 21 people Friday, as thousands took to the streets after midday prayers in opposition strongholds.
The wildly divergent accounts were a pointed reminder of how difficult it is to obtain credible information about an uprising with competing narratives and few, if any, independent observers. Most international journalists have been barred from entering Syria, leaving them to piece together events from amateur videos, Facebook postings and conversations over shaky Skype connections with activists who rarely distinguish between fact and rumor. Both sides have put out inaccurate information.
The timing of the twin blasts, which happened minutes apart and could be heard across the city, was bound to raise suspicion among anti-government activists.
Syria has been under mounting pressure to end the bloodshed, which the United Nations says has killed more than 5,000 people. There have been calls for international intervention, a prospect certain to raise alarm among regime insiders just months after a Western-led military campaign helped topple the late Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.