BEIRUT — A video posted online in the name of a shadowy militant group late Friday claimed responsibility for twin suicide bombings in the Syrian capital this week that killed 55 people.
In the video, a group calling itself the Al-Nusra Front says the bombing was in response to attacks on residential areas by the regime of President Bashar Assad.
"We fulfilled our promise to respond with strikes and explosions," a distorted voice says, reading black text that rolls across a white screen while Islamic chanting plays in the background.
The Al-Nusra Front has claimed past attacks through statements posted on militant websites. Little is known about the group, although Western intelligence officials say it could be a front for an al-Qaida branch operating in Iraq. The video's authenticity could not be independently verified.
Western officials say there is little doubt that Islamist extremists, some associated with al-Qaida, have made inroads in Syria as instability has spread since the start of the uprising against President Bashar Assad 14 months ago.
But much remains unclear about their numbers, influence and activities inside Syria.
Their presence adds a wild card element to the Syria conflict that could further hamper international efforts to end it.
World powers are backing a peace plan presented by international envoy Kofi Annan that calls for a cease-fire to allow for talks on a political solution to the conflict.
A shipment of supplies for U.N. observers monitoring the truce arrived in Damascus Sunday. It included six armored cars, the first of 25 to arrive Saturday for use by the 105 military observers and 45 support staff currently in the country.
But while foreign diplomats and observers can pressure the government and the opposition to stick the plan, they have no means of influencing shadowy Islamic militants.
Friday's video said the Damascus attack was in response to Syrian government attacks on residential areas.
"We promised the regime in our last declaration to respond to its killing of families, women, children and old men in a number of Syrian provinces, and here we kept our promise," it says.
The video, which says it was made on May 10, the day of the Damascus bombings, also strikes a sectarian tone, calling for the protection of Sunni Muslims and threatening revenge against Alawites, the Shiite offshoot to which Assad and many members of his security services belong.
"We tell this regime: Stop your massacres against the Sunni people. If not, you will bear the sin of the Alawites. What is coming will be more calamitous, God willing," it says. It also advises Sunnis to avoid security offices – a veiled threat of future bombings.
Thursday's twin blasts in Damascus were the fifth in a string of major attacks in Syrian cities that have clouded the picture of a fight between the opposition and the regime. It was the deadliest yet, in part because it happened on a key thoroughfare during rush hour, while previous bombings were on weekends.
Syria's uprising started in March 2011 with mostly peaceful protests inspired by successful revolts elsewhere calling for political reform. The Syrian government responded with a brutal crackdown, prompting many in the opposition to take up arms to defend themselves and attack government troops.
The U.N. said weeks ago that more than 9,000 people have been killed. Hundreds more have died since.
Overall violence as dropped as the observer mission has grown, though daily attacks continue.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime troops shelled and raided villages in the central provinces of Hama and Homs on Saturday as well as in Idlib in the north, killing at least three people.
The group, which relies on activists in Syria, also said rebels and regime forces were clashing outside of Damascus and in Idlib province, where an attack on a military convoy killed four soldiers.
Syria's state news agency said "armed terrorists" opened fire on an army colonel and his brother early Saturday as they drove to work outside of Damascus, killing one of them. A lieutenant general was shot dead in another suburb outside of his house, it said.
The claims could not be independently verified.
Also on Saturday, Turkey said two Turkish journalists who were detained in Syria were on their way home.
Turkey's Anadolu agency said a plane carried Adem Ozkose and Hamit Coskun on Saturday to Iran, where a Turkish plane will return them to Turkey.
The pair were reported missing in early March, and were not heard from until last weekend when they made brief telephone calls to their families from detention in Damascus. Iran mediated between Turkey and Syria to release the journalists.
Associated Press writer Albert Aji contributed reporting from Damascus, Syria.
<em>Syrian mourners attend the mass funeral of 44 people killed in twin suicide bombings which targeted intelligence agency compounds at the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus on December 24, 2011 (LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br> Dec. 23, 2011 - Two car bombers blow themselves up near intelligence agency compounds in the capital Damascus, killing 44 people in the first suicide attacks since the uprising began in March.
<em>In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, an Arab league observer with the orange jacket, center, looks toward Syrian dead bodies who were killed during an explosion in Midan neighborhood in Damascus, Syria, on Friday Jan. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/SANA) </em><br><br> Jan. 6, 2012 - Two weeks later, another suicide explosion rips through a busy intersection and a police bus in the capital's Midan neighborhood, killing 26 people.
<em>In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, covered dead bodies are seen in front a damaged building at a security compound which was attacked by an explosion, in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria, on Friday Feb. 10, 2012. (AP Photo/SANA)</em><br><br> Feb. 10, 2012 - Two suicide car bombers strike in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest, killing 28 people near a military intelligence building and the barracks of security forces.
<em>In this Friday, March 2, 2012, citizen journalism image provided by the Local Coordination Committees in Syria and accessed on Saturday, March 3, 2012, anti-Syrian regime protesters hold up banners during a demonstration, in Idlib, Syria. (AP Photo/Local Coordination Committees in Syria) </em><br><br> March 3, 2012 - A suicide car bomb explodes at a roundabout in Daraa, the birthplace of the uprising, killing at least two people in the first suicide attack in an opposition stronghold.
<em>In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, burnt and destroyed cars are seen near the aviation intelligence department, which was attacked by one of two explosions, in Damascus, Syria, on Saturday, March 17, 2012. (AP Photo/SANA)</em><br><br> March 17, 2012 - Three suicide bombings in Damascus kill at least 27 people, two of them near-simultaneous suicide car bomb attacks on heavily guarded intelligence and security buildings.
<em>A man reacts at a funeral of the victims killed during a suicide bombing attack in Damascus, Syria, Sunday, March 18, 2012. (AP Photo/Muzaffar Salman)</em><br><br> March 18, 2012 - An explosion hits near a government security building in Aleppo, killing one policeman and one woman.
<em>Syrian investigators, right, gather next to a damaged police bus that was attacked by an explosion in the Midan neighborhood of Damascus, Syria, on Friday April 27, 2012. (AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi)</em><br><br> April 27, 2012 - A suicide bomber in Damascus detonates an explosives belt near members of the security forces, killing at least nine people outside a mosque in the Midan neighborhood.
<em>In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, a Syrian man, left, stands in front of a building that was damaged after two bombs exploded near a military compound, in the city of Idlib, northwestern Syria, Monday, April 30, 2012. (AP Photo/SANA)</em><br><br> April 30, 2012 - Twin suicide explosions near daybreak strike close to a government security compound in the city of Idlib, killing at least nine people.
<em>People look at destroyed and damaged vehicles after an explosion on al-Thawra Street in Damascus, Syria, Saturday, May 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi)</em><br><br> May 5, 2012 - A bomb strikes a car wash in Aleppo, killing at least five people a day after government troops opened fire to break up large protests against a violent university raid.
<em>In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, flames and smoke raise from burning cars after two bombs exploded, at Qazaz neighborhood in Damascus, Syria, on Thursday May 10, 2012. (AP Photo/SANA)</em><br><br> May 10, 2012 - Two suicide blasts rip through Damascus' Qazaz neighborhood, killing 55 people in an attack that targeted a military intelligence building as employees were arriving at work.
U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice tweets:
|@ AmbassadorRice : #Syria regime turned artillery, tanks and helicopters on its own men & women. It unleashed knife-wielding shabiha gangs on its own children.|
Russia says international envoy Kofi Annan will visit Moscow on Monday to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria. Russia also called for an inquiry into an alleged massacre that took place in the village of Tramseh on Thursday. "We have no doubt that this wrongdoing serves the interests of those powers that are not seeking peace but persistently seek to sow the seeds of interconfessional and civilian conflict on Syrian soil," Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement, according to Reuters. Moscow did not apportion blame for the killings.
Read more on Reuters.com.
The Associated Press obtained a video that purports to show the aftermath of an alleged massacre in the village of Tramseh, near Hama.
How do Syria's fighters get their arms? An overview put together by Reuters explains that there are three gateways to the country -- Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.
Syrian rebels are smuggling small arms into Syria through a network of land and sea routes involving cargo ships and trucks moving through Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, maritime intelligence and Free Syrian Army (FSA) officers say. Western and regional powers deny any suggestion they are involved in gun running. Their interest in the sensitive border region lies rather in screening to ensure powerful weapons such as surface to air missiles do not find their way to Islamist or other militants.
Read the full report here.
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a man mourning a victim killed by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
According to the Hama Revolutionary Council, a Syrian opposition group, more than 220 people have been killed in a new alleged massacre in Taramseh. Earlier reports said more than 100 people were killed. "More than 220 people fell today in Taramseh," the Council said in a statement. "They died from bombardment by tanks and helicopters, artillery shelling and summary executions."
Fadi Sameh, an opposition activist from Taramseh, told Reuters he had left the town before the reported massacre but was in touch with residents. "It appears that Alawite militiamen from surrounding villages descended on Taramseh after its rebel defenders pulled out, and started killing the people. Whole houses have been destroyed and burned from the shelling," Sameh claimed.
Read more on Reuters.com.
Syrian activist Rami Jarrah tweets that Syrian State TV has confirmed deaths in Tremseh. "Terrorists" is often the term used by the Syrian regime for opposition forces.
|@ AlexanderPageSY : Syrian State TV: clashes between security apparatus & terrorists in #Tremseh of #Hama leaves large numbers of terrorists killed #Syria|
|@ Reuters : UPDATE: DEATH TOLL IN SYRIAN FORCES' ATTACK ON VILLAGE IN SYRIA'S HAMA REGION IS MORE THAN 200, MOSTLY CIVILIANS - OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS|