Two explosions at the Damascus general headquarters of Syria’s army engulfed at least two floors of the building in flames on Wednesday, the latest in a series of major bombings in the capital.
Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said two improvised explosive devices, one of which may have been placed inside the headquarters building itself, exploded minutes before 7am, shattering the windows of nearby buildings in the heavily guarded Umayyad Square district.
Rebel spokesmen for the Free Syrian Army released a statement claiming responsibility and saying that dozens had been killed, but Zoubi said the bombings caused “only material damage”.
“I would like to assure everyone that all our military comrades at the ministry of defence and the army general staff are well and unharmed,” Zoubi told reporters. “Security forces [are] chasing armed terrorists in the area … everything is normal … the news is false. Yes, it’s a terrorist act near an important location building, but they failed to achieve their goal.’’
A military source quoted by state television said that the attack involved one car bomb and one improvised explosive and that an unknown number of guards had been injured. They denied any casualties among the army leadership.
Many roads in the centre of the capital were blocked, and ambulances rushed to the scene, residents said. They reported hours of gunfire following the incident.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist organisation based in the United Kingdom, said that fighting erupted inside the general command compound after the explosions.
“I was woken up at four minutes to seven by the first loud explosion. Five or six minutes later there was a second,” one resident told the Reuters news agency.
“We’re used to the sound of artillery but these were very big – bigger than usual. I can hear gunfire still.”
Call for Arab intervention
The attacks came the morning after Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani for the first time called for unilateral Arab intervention in Syria.
Sheikh Hamad, speaking at the annual UN General Assembly in New York City, said Arab states must act out of “national, humanitarian, political and military duties” in the face of the UN Security Council’s failure “to reach an effective position”.
YouTube video showed the aftermath of Wednesday’s explosion
“In view of this, I think that it is better for the Arab countries themselves to interfere out of their national, humanitarian, political and military duties and do what is necessary to stop the bloodshed in Syria,” he said.
Western powers are opposed to direct intervention, and the Security Council, which includes Syrian allies China and Russia, has been unable to pass even a resolution calling for President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
“We had a similar precedent when Arab forces intervened in Lebanon in the mid-’70s … to stop internal fighting there in a
step that proved to be effective and useful,” Sheikh Hamad said.
He urged countries to provide “all sorts of support” to Syrians until they gain legitimate rights.
US President Barack Obama, also speaking at the General Assembly on Tuesday, again called for the Assad’s removal but provided no clear plan.
Arming of rebels denied
Qatar, along with Saudi Arabia and Turkey, strongly supports the mainly Sunni Muslim Syrian rebels, while mainly Shia Iran backs Assad, whose Alawite minority is an offshoot of Shia Islam.
Activists and the UN say that more than 20,000 people have been killed in Syria’s uprising, which began as peaceful demonstrations for reform 18 months ago but turned into an armed insurgency fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad, with sectarian overtones that could drag in regional powers.
Media reports have suggested that rebels are purchasing some of their arms from sources in Turkey with funds provided by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, possibly assisted by US and European intelligence agencies.
Sheikh Hamad denied that Qatar had been arming the rebels, saying that his country provided logistic and humanitarian help, and said a Sunni-Shia confrontation would be catastrophic.
String of bombings
The attack was similar to one staged earlier this month in the same area that struck a building housing security staff for the army general headquarters, leaving two soldiers in critical condition.
Rebels have launched increasingly audacious attacks inside Assad’s seat of power since expanding their presence in the city this summer.
Hala Jaber, a correspondent for the Sunday Times, wrote on Twitter that the top two floors of the building appeared to have caught fire and men on the roof were waving their arms, possibly signalling for rescue.
In-depth coverage of escalating violence across Syria
An assassination bombing in central Damascus in July killed Assad’s defence minister and brother-in-law.
Bombs planted by rebels exploded on Tuesday at a school building occupied by security forces and pro-government militias in Damascus.
The school’s director told state television that seven people were wounded.
“At exactly 9:35am, seven improvised devices were set off in two explosions to target a school used for weekly planning meetings between shabbiha militia and security officers,” said Abu Moaz, a leader of rebel group Ansar al-Islam.
“There were several officers present, and we are hoping they will be part of a large number of killed in this operation.”
While the 18-month conflict continued in Damascus, it also spilled over the border into Israeli territory for the first time.
Israel’s military said Syrian forces fired mortar shells at villages suspected to be occupied by rebels but accidentally hit Israeli-held land in the disputed Golan Heights, causing no injuries or damage.
A spokesman said the Israeli military filed a complaint with UN forces responsible for monitoring the border area and that “fire from Syria leaking into Israel will not be accepted”.
A source in the area told the Reuters news agency that the orchard where the shells fell belonged to an Israeli agricultural community which lies close to Syrian villages where fighting has flared between Syrian rebels and forces loyal to Assad.
The incidents came as the UN convened for its annual General Assembly in New York City, where Lakhdar Brahimi, the new UN-Arab League envoy, briefed the Security Council and reportedly told representatives that Assad was “not serious about making reforms”.
Children ‘badly traumatised’
In another development, a global children’s aid agency warned that Syrian children are being “badly traumatised” after witnessing killings, torture and other atrocities in their country’s brutal conflict.
Save the Children said it has collected “shocking testimony” revealing that “children have been the targets of brutal attacks, seen the deaths of parents, siblings and other children, and have witnessed and experienced torture.”
Released on Tuesday, the collection of first-hand accounts of the conflict from Syrian children and parents after fleeing their country contains graphic details of how children have been caught up in Syria’s war, “witnessing massacres and in some cases, experiencing torture”.
The report gave detailed accounts of several children who witnessed horrific atrocities in their country.
“Dead bodies along with injured people were scattered all over the ground. I found body parts all over each other. Dogs were eating the dead bodies for two days after the massacre,” it quoted 14-year-old Hassan as saying.
Another Syrian boy, Wael, 16, said he knew a six-year-old boy who “was tortured more than anyone else … he only survived for three days and then he simply died.”
The global organisation urged the UN to step up its documentation of all violations of children’s rights in Syria.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies