DAMASCUS – A suicide bomber blew himself up in the heart of the Syrian capital Friday, killing at least 25 people and wounding 46 others, Syrian state media reported.
The incident took place in the al-Midan quarter of Damascus. Casualties included mostly civilians and some law enforcement personnel, the Syrian Arab News Agency said.
The news agency said the “terrorist explosion” went off at a traffic light “in a densely populated area” with heavy traffic, near Hassan al-Hakeem Basic Education School. SANA posted grisly photos of the incident’s aftermath showing some of the victims, vehicles with shattered windows and pools of blood.
The strike comes a couple of days after the Free Syrian Army — the force of military defectors fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime — vowed to kick off “huge operations” against government targets.
But one high-ranking FSA officer denied responsibility and blamed the blast on the government.
“The explosion in Damascus today is the work of the Syrian intelligence because they had information that a massive protest was planned in the al-Midan district,” said Lt. Col. Mohamed Hamado.
“The FSA does not conduct operations of that kind that may kill civilians, and we are in direct contact with Col. Riad Al Asaad, head of FSA before executing any attack. We have confirmed information that the intelligence is funding and has formed units that perform terrorist operations under names of Islamic extremist groups and issue statements on the Internet so that the government proves to the West that Islamic extremists are a threat and may take over if the regime is toppled.”
One activist told CNN that the government was looking for an excuse to block off central Damascus as protesters planned to converge on the area.
Every Friday for months, anti-government activists have staged mass demonstrations across Syria, each week having a different theme. This week’s theme had the slogan, “In fighting tyranny, belief in God will grant you victory.”
The Local Coordination Committees of Syria, a network of opposition activists which collects reports from eyewitnesses and protesters, reported a heavy presence of ambulances and security forces in Damascus, with explosions heard around the area.
The LCC reported anti-government demonstrations, including massive outpourings of protesters in Aleppo and a huge deployment of security forces in other parts of the country. At least 19 people have died elsewhere, the LCC said: seven in the Damascus suburbs, five in Hama province, six in Homs province and one in Idlib province.
The LCC said security forces firing at protesters shot a child in the chest in the city of Deir Ezzor and killed a teenager in the Damascus suburbs whose grandfather is a sheikh.
The activist group also reported security forces killed three soldiers in the Homs province town of Rastan “because they refused to fire at peaceful protesters.”
Hamado, who is in charge of FSA operations in the coastal city of Latakia, said the regime is detaining protesters in cargo containers, loading them on ships and transferring them to security headquarters. He said the regime has been detaining women and blackmailing men to either turn themselves in or the women will be raped.
The apparent suicide attack comes as Arab League monitors are in the country to determine whether the Syrian government is abiding by an agreement to end its 10-month crackdown against protesters. The Arab League said Friday it is increasing the number of monitors in Syria over the next few days to 150 people, from about 100. Many protesters have been disappointed that the monitors’ presence has failed to decrease the daily violence.
Between 5,000 and 6,000 deaths have occurred during the crackdown, according to various accounts. Activists blame the killings on the government crackdown, but Al-Assad’s government says it is putting down armed terrorists, whom it blames for the bloodshed.
The Friday blast comes two weeks after a pair of powerful car bomb explosions killed at least 44 people in Damascus. The government blamed the strike on terrorists, while opposition forces accused the regime of carrying out the attack to back up its claim of fighting terrorists.
The December 23 strikes on the State Security Directorate and another security branch had the “fingerprints of al Qaeda,” the Interior Ministry said. It cited the “modus operandi” and the selection of highly populated areas.
CNN cannot independently confirm events inside Syria because the government has restricted activities by international journalists.