Thousands turn out for funerals of Damascus blast victims

AFP , Saturday 24 Dec 2011

Thousands of Syrians take on the streets in Damascus to attend funeral prayers for the 44 victims of suicide bombers in the capital as charge and counter-charge swirl over who is behind the attacks

Mourners bow in prayer at a mass funeral for 44 people killed in twin suicide bombings in Damascus (Photo:AP)

Thousands of people turned out on Saturday for prayers in memory of the 44 people killed by suicide bombers in the capital as charge and counter-charge swirled over who was behind the attacks.

The funeral prayers, at Damascus's central Omayyad Mosque, came as an Arab League delegation met Foreign Minister Walid Muallem to discuss the arrival of a team to oversee a deal aimed at ending nine months of bloodshed.

Mourners prayed before flag-draped coffins, while a crowd outside waved portraits of embattled President Bashar al-Assad and banners of the ruling Baath party as police stood watch.

Religious Affairs Minister Abdel Sattar al-Sayyed read out a statement from Christian and Muslim religious leaders "denouncing the criminal attacks on Friday... and the murder, destruction and sabotage" that are part of a "dangerous plot against Syria."

"We call upon the Syrian people to be aware that Syria is being targeted, and affirm that we stand with them in the face of this plot. We reject any sort of extremism represented by terrorist organisation."

It was the nature of that "terrorism" that was being hotly debated, amid conflicting claims about who carried out the bombings.

Within minutes of the Friday morning explosions, state television said initial enquiries held Al-Qaeda responsible.

Not long afterwards, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Meqdad said "this is the gift we get from the terrorists and Al-Qaeda."

However, the government did not release details on how it came to such a conclusion, and so quickly.

Later in the day, the opposition accused the government itself of carrying out the attacks.

Opposition umbrella group the Syrian National Council said "the Syrian regime, alone, bears all the direct responsibility for the two terrorist explosions."

It said the government was trying to create the impression "that it faces danger coming from abroad and not a popular revolution demanding freedom and dignity."

The Muslim Brotherhood, an influential component of the SNC, issued its own statement, in which it also pointed the finger at the regime.

"The regime gave a bloody welcome to the team of Arab observers, on the morning of Holy Friday, to cover up the weekly demonstrations across the Syrian map," it said.

"We draw attention... to the fact that Syrian television delayed nearly an hour in broadcasting images of the incident from the time of its announcement, as the theatre director put the finishing touches on the scene, including fake blood."

It also pointed out the speed at which the government blamed Al-Qaeda.

Adding to the confusion was what the Brotherhood said was a bogus website fabricated to resemble its own, which claimed on Saturday that the group itself had carried out the attacks and promised more.

Brotherhood spokesman Zuhair Salem said the claim was "completely fabricated under our name on the Internet," pinning responsibility on the regime.

It was "completely orchestrated by the regime, just as the attacks were," he added.

Hours later, the "bogus" website was no longer accessible.

Friday's bombings, the first against the powerful security services in central Damascus since the uprising against Assad began in March, came a day after the arrival of an advance group of Arab League monitors.

The delegates met Muallem on Saturday in talks the ministry's spokesman described as "positive."

Arab League Assistant Secretary General Samir Seif al-Yazal, head of the advance team, said the first group of observers would leave for Damascus on Monday.

He said it would consist of more than 50 experts in politics, human rights, military matters and other issues.

The nine-member team is making logistical arrangements for the arrival of the first observers, who will eventually number between 150 and 200.

The mission is part of an Arab plan endorsed by Syria on November 2 that also calls for the withdrawal of the military from towns and residential districts, a halt to violence against civilians and the release of detainees.

Muallem has said he expects the observers to vindicate his government's contention that the unrest is the work of "armed terrorists," not overwhelmingly peaceful protesters as maintained by the West and rights groups.

Opposition leaders charge that Syria's agreement to the mission after weeks of prevarication was a mere "ploy" to head off a League threat to go to the UN Security Council over the crackdown, which the world body says has killed more than 5,000 people.

Syria says more than 2,000 security force personnel have been killed in attacks by rebels since March.

There was no let-up in the bloodshed on Friday with human rights activists reporting at least 21 civilians killed, most of them by security forces.

The bodies of four civilians who had been arrested were found Saturday with signs of torture in restive Homs province, activists said, urging the visiting Arab League team to document the cases.

"The corpses of four citizens were found this morning in the streets of the town of Hula and a fifth citizen was found in a critical condition," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement received in Nicosia.

"Security forces and 'Shabiha' (pro-regime militia) groups had arrested them after midnight on Friday-Saturday in the Al-Bustan neighbourhood... There were signs of torture on the bodies of the martyrs," the Observatory said.

The watchdog demanded that the Arab League "immediately head to the town of Hula to document this flagrant violation of human rights which is just the tip of the iceberg of what is going on in Syria."

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