BEIRUT — More than 50 people were killed and scores injured in Syria today during a series of mortar and car bomb attacks targeting pro-government districts in Damascus and Homs, according to official and activist accounts.
The deadliest strike was a car bombing near a busy intersection in war-ravaged Homs that left at least 36 dead and 85 injured, Syria’s official news agency reported. Some reports indicated that two car bombs had been detonated within 300 yards of each other and that the death toll had reached as high as 65.
In the vicinity of Damascus, authorities reported that mortar barrages struck a school and a center for displaced people, killing at least 18. Today's strikes were among the deadliest mortar attacks reported in the capital, where rebels based in the outskirts frequently shell civilian neighborhoods.
Today's onslaught marked the latest in a series of stepped-up attacks on civilian targets in both cities.
The official media blamed all of Today's attacks on “terrorists,” its standard term for rebels fighting to overthrow the government. The blasts came a day after President Bashar Assad announced that he would seek a third seven-year term in the June 3 election. Opposition activists have dismissed the election as a farce. But there was no known direct link between the attacks and the announcement of Assad’s candidacy.
Homs has long been a key battleground in the Syrian conflict, now in its fourth year. A number of neighborhoods have been reduced to rubble.
This month, 25 people were killed in a pair of car bomb strikes that, like today's attack, struck a neighborhood that is home to many in the minority Alawite Muslim sect, a Shiite offshoot whose members include Assad and high-ranking commanders of the Syrian security services. Homs’ volatile sectarian mix — along with Alawites, it is home to a significant Christian minority, along with a Sunni Muslim majority — has been a factor in the violence there. Most rebels come from the country’s Sunni majority, while Alawites and Christians generally support the government.
In recent months, Syrian forces have recaptured much of Homs from rebels and cornered remaining opposition fighters in a few enclaves, including the heart of the Old City. The government says that hundreds of rebels have surrendered and that negotiations are continuing in a bid to persuade remaining fighters in the area and elsewhere to lay down their arms or evacuate the city.
Officials have talked about life in Homs getting back to normal, but gunfire and shelling remain daily occurrences, and the army has been making advances on the rebel bastion of the Old City.
In the capital, authorities reported that 14 civilians, mostly students, were killed and 86 injured when a pair of mortar shells struck an Islamic school in the Shaghour district in Damascus’ Old City. The district is firmly under government control and is patrolled by pro-Assad militiamen.
State media reported that mortar rounds struck a makeshift shelter for displaced people in the industrial town of Adra, just northeast of the capital, killing four people, including three children.
Rebels based in the capital’s outskirts frequently fire mortar rounds into the city and into government-controlled suburbs. Syrian authorities label the attacks indiscriminate and have called on the international community to condemn the practice. The mortar strikes have escalated in recent weeks as government forces have moved to oust rebels from outlying areas.
Also today, the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said it would send a team to Syria to investigate opposition allegations that government forces have used toxic chlorine gas. The government has denied the charges.
Chlorine, a common industrial chemical that disperses quickly in the air, is no longer officially considered a chemical weapon, though the toxic element was deployed on the battlefield a century ago in World War I.
Under a United Nations-backed program, Syria has shipped 92.5 percent of its chemical weapons material out of the country for destruction, international monitors confirm. Syria has also closed chemical weapons storage and production sites, and has destroyed buildings, equipment and containers under the program, monitors say.
Syrian officials say rebel attacks on chemical weapons removal convoys and related operations slowed the disarmament effort, causing several deadlines to be missed. Syria denied U.S. allegations that it was stalling in removing its chemical arsenal.
An exile-based dissident group, the Syrian National Coalition, called today on the international monitoring team to also investigate “Assad’s hidden chemical weapons stockpile.” The government says it has declared its entire chemical inventory and denies having any secret stockpiles.