Syria: Damascus car bomb wrecks Eid al-Adha ceasefire

 

A powerful car bomb exploded in Damascus and scattered fighting broke out in several areas across Syria today, quickly dashing any hopes that a shaky holiday cease-fire would hold for four days.

But taking advantage of a lull in fighting in the hours after the truce which went into effect Friday morning, thousands of people took to the streets in several towns and cities, calling for President Bashar Assad's ouster in the largest anti-regime protests in months. 

The Syrian military has agreed to cease military operations for four days beginning Friday morning to observe the Eid al-Adha holiday, in line with a proposal by international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi that was endorsed by the UN Security Council. 

But there were no arrangements for monitoring compliance, and past cease-fire efforts have collapsed as both sides refused to lay down their arms. 

In Damascus, a car bomb exploded in a residential area, killing at least five people and wounding more than 30 others, according to state TV and activists. The target of the explosion was not immediately clear. 

A Damascus resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity fearing reprisals, said it may have been a residential complex for police forces located in the southern Daff el-Shouq district. 

The Islamic extremist group Jabhat al-Nusra, which is fighting alongside the rebels and has rejected the cease-fire, has claimed responsibility for several past bombings targeting the regime. 

The group also clashed with government troops at a military base outside the strategic town of Maaret al-Numan, which is on the road between Damascus and the northern city of Aleppo, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground. Fierce fighting has been going on there for several days.

Opposition fighters seized Maaret al-Numan earlier this month, disrupting the ability of the Syrian army to send supplies and reinforcements to the northwest, where troops are bogged down in a stalemate with the rebels in Aleppo, Syria's largest city. 

And at least 10 people were killed in government shelling and sniper fire in the Damascus suburbs of Harasta and Douma, and in the northern Idlib province, activists said. 

The violence underscored the complexity of the situation, with the badly fragmented opposition sending mixed signals about the truce, some endorsing it and others rejecting it as irrelevant. 

Assad's government accepted the truce but left significant loopholes, declaring it would respond to any rebel attack or attempts by foreign forces to intervene. 

The Syrian military issued a statement later Friday, saying the armed forces had abided by the cease-fire but responded to violations by "armed terrorist gangs" who opened fire on security forces in several locations across the country. The Syrian government routinely refers to rebels seeking to oust Assad as terrorists. 

Still, an overall decline in violence allowed protesters in Damascus and several other cities to pour into the streets in numbers not seen in months. 

Protesters rallied after holiday prayers in the capital Damascus and its suburbs, in the northern and southern provinces of Aleppo and Daraa, the central province of Homs and the city of Hama. Three people were wounded when troops tried to disperse protesters in Daraa, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported. 

In the Damascus suburb of Kfar Batna, Syrians waved rebel flags, cheered, clapped and in some cases danced to revolutionary songs, according to a video posted online. 

"May God curse your soul Hafez," they shouted, in reference to Bashar's father and the late Syrian president, Hafez Assad. "Syria wants freedom," the protesters added, according to a video posted online. 

"You will fall, Bashar!" shouted protesters in Douma, another video showed. 

The videos appeared consistent with AP's reporting on the demonstrations in the area. 

Mohammed Saeed, an activist based in Aleppo, which has seen some of the fiercest fighting of the war, said the city was "relatively calm" despite shelling in several areas and clashes near the city's military airport that killed at least four people. 

He said via Skype that marches took place in the neighborhoods of al-Shaar, Hanano and Bustan al-Qasr as well as several suburbs. 

The festive and mostly peaceful protests were reminiscent of the mass demonstrations that ignited the uprising against Assad in March 2011. In recent months, gatherings have been much smaller, a result of a brutal crackdown by the Assad regime and fighting in the streets as the uprising turned into a full blown insurgency. 

"It reminds me of the early days of the revolution, the days when people could go out and protest peacefully," Damascus-based activist Khaled al-Shami said. Security was tight around the capital, and police forces erected additional checkpoints on main roads. In side streets, people performed prayers and protested freely, al-Shami said. 

"It seems there is an attempt by both sides to abide by this truce, at least in Damascus," al-Shami said, adding that the truce was "a good thing that unfortunately will not last." 

The short holiday cease-fire was the only thing a divided international community could agree on after the failure of a more ambitious plan for an open-ended truce and political transition talks by Brahimi's predecessor, former UN chief Kofi Annan, in April. 

Brahimi has not said what was supposed to happen when the truce expires on Monday, an ominous sign since Assad and opposition leaders disagree sharply on how to resolve the conflict. Assad refuses to resign, while some opposition leaders say his departure is a prerequisite for any political talks. The fragmented opposition factions disagree over whether to negotiate with Assad at all. 

Syria's state news agency said Assad attended holiday prayers in Al-Afram Mosque in Al-Muhajireen district of Damascus. The embattled president was shown briefly on TV, sitting on the mosque floor and praying. He was later seen smiling and shaking hands with worshippers. 

Assad has rarely appeared in public during the uprising. He was last shown on state TV Oct. 6, when he laid a wreath to mark the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1973 Arab-Israel war. 

More than 35,000 people have been killed, including more than 8,000 government troops, since the uprising against Assad began, according to activists.

AP

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