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Car bombs kill 44 in Syria as monitoring team arrives

State TV hints al-Qaeda role; opposition suspects regime

DAMASCUS — Two car bombs exploded Friday outside the heavily guarded compounds of Syria’s intelligence agencies, killing 44 people and wounding more than 100 others, authorities said.

State-run TV said the al-Qaeda terrorist network was possibly to blame for the first suicide bombings in the nine-month uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The opposition, however, questioned the government’s account and hinted that the regime itself could have been behind the attack, noting it occurred during a visit by an Arab League advance team preparing to monitor Mr. Assad’s crackdown of the revolt.

The government has contended the turmoil in Syria this year is not an uprising but the work of terrorists and foreign-backed armed gangs.

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’ Kfar Sousa district.

About a minute later, a second attacker blew up his vehicle at the gate of the General Intelligence Agency, the officials said.

Syrian officials took the Arab League observers to the scene of the explosions and said it supported their accounts of who is behind the violence.

“We said it from the beginning, this is terrorism. They are killing the army and civilians,” Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad said.

The head of the Arab League’s advance team, Sameer Seif el-Yazal, accompanied him.

“We are here to see the facts on the ground. … What we are seeing today is regrettable, the important thing is for things to calm down.”

The Arab League advance team had arrived hours before the blasts. The observer mission will determine whether Syria is fulfilling its pledge to end a deadly crackdown on anti-government protesters, who have been staging 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 in opposition strongholds after midday prayers.

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.

The Arab League, which last month suspended Syria and imposed sweeping sanctions, has threatened to go to the U.N. General Assembly if Syria does not comply with a peace initiative calling on the government to withdraw its forces from cities and towns, release political prisoners, open negotiations with its opponents, and admit monitors.

The first observers are expected to arrive within days.

The government says more than 2,000 security force members have been killed defending the country against Islamic extremists and armed gangs, which it charges are supported from abroad.

The U.N. Security Council and the United States condemned the bombings.

“There is no justification for terrorism of any kind, and we condemn these acts wherever they occur,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.

A U.S. official declined to speculate about who might be responsible.

“It’s best to get all the information before assigning blame one way or another,” said the official.

The official Syrian Arab News Agency said the attacks were carried out by two suicide car bombers.

“Preliminary investigations indicated that the criminal attack carries the blueprints of al-Qaeda,” SANA said.

Lebanese authorities had warned Syria two days before the bombings that al-Qaeda had infiltrated Syria from the Lebanese town of Ersal, Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said.

The Syrian National Council, a prominent opposition bloc, said “the Syrian regime and its security apparatus bear sole, direct responsibility for the terrorist explosions.”

It alleged that the bombings were intended to dissuade the Arab League’s observers from visiting security installations and to reinforce the government’s assertion that it is facing an external threat rather than a popular uprising.

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