DAMASCUS, Syria — Gunmen detonated back-to-back roadside bombs and clashed with police in central Damascus Saturday in attacks that caused no damage but highlighted the ability of rebels to breach the intense security near President Bashar Assad's power bases.
The apparently coordinated blasts point to the increasing use of guerrilla-style operations in the capital to undermine the government's claims of having full control over Damascus. It also suggests that rebel cells have established a Damascus network capable of evading Assad's intelligence agents and slipping through security cordons.
Assad's regime, however, has displayed no hesitation on the battlefield despite blows such as Damascus attacks and defections of high-ranking military and political figures, including the prime minister earlier this week.
In Aleppo, activists said Syrian forces pressed ahead with an offensive to break rebel footholds in the nation's largest city. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a helicopter gunship fired missiles on apartment buildings a day after protesters begged for international shipments of anti-aircraft weapons.
With diplomatic efforts all but exhausted, strategic planning has moved into high gear for Assad's possible fall or worst-case scenarios if the civil war deepens, including use of his suspected chemical arsenal.
In Istanbul, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Turkey's foreign minister said their countries were creating a special joint task force to respond to potential crises such as victims of chemical attacks or a dramatic spike in the more than 200,000 refugees that have already fled Syria.
"We have been closely coordinating over the course of this conflict, but now we need to get into the real details of such operational planning. It needs to be across both of our governments," Clinton said after talks with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
Davutoglu hinted at the possibility of setting up a so-called "safe zone" inside Syria to protect war refugees from possible attacks by Assad's gunners or warplanes. "We need to brace for impact," he said.
The Arab League, meanwhile, announced that its foreign ministers will meet in an emergency session in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, on Sunday to discuss the Syrian meltdown, which human rights groups say has claimed at least 20,000 lives. Some Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are major rebel backers.
Syria's security forces say they pushed the rebels from the capital after intense, week-long battles last month. But opposition fighters appear resilient and resourceful in some areas.
On the capital's northern edge, Syrian forces pounded the suburb of al-Tal with mortars and artillery shells in the third consecutive day of government barrages, said Mohammed Saeed, an activist in al-Tal. He said they were using helicopters to strafe the area, adding that two hospitals were hit.
"The situation is very grave and the town is completely besieged," he said.
It came a day after armed men snatched three journalists from the pro-regime TV station Al-Ikhbariya and their drivers while they were covering the al-Tal violence. The station's general manager Imad Sarah said efforts were under way to release them. In June, gunmen raided Al-Ikhbariya's headquarters, killing seven employees.
The bombings in Damascus itself brought chaos to some of the most exclusive areas of the capital in a symbolic blow to Assad.
One blast – from a device planted under a tree – was set off by remote control as a vehicle carrying soldiers passed by in the Marjeh district, an official at the site of the blast site told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk the press.
The explosion, which caused no casualties, was about 100 yards (meters) from the Four Seasons, one of the top luxury hotels in Damascus.
After the blast, gunmen opened fire on civilians "to provoke panic," the state-run news agency SANA said.
At the same time, the second explosion went off near Tishrin Stadium, less than a half mile (kilometer) away, SANA reported.
Just hours later, SANA reported that a bus was attacked in a Damascus suburb, killing six passengers traveling from the central province of Hama.
The news agency said security agents were pursuing the attackers in all incidents, referring to them as "terrorists" – the term authorities routinely use for rebels trying to topple Assad's regime.
Explosions in the capital have become increasingly common as Syria's civil war escalates. On Aug. 18, rebels carried out a sophisticated bombing of a regime security building that killed four members of Assad's inner circle.
Abductions, too, have been on the rise.
Syrian rebels last week seized a bus carrying 48 Iranians in a Damascus suburb. Rebels claimed the men are military personnel, including some members of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard, who were on a "reconnaissance mission" to help Assad's crackdown.
Iran, however, says the group was pilgrims visiting a Shiite shrine in Damascus.
A Paris-based Iranian opposition group challenged Tehran's account by claiming Saturday at least seven of the captives as active members of the Revolutionary Guard. The statement by the People's Mujahedeen Organization gave names and ranks – ranging from brigadier general to colonel – for those it claims are part of the group held by the Syrian rebels. The list describes all the alleged Revolutionary Guard members as being from Iran's West Azerbaijan region along the borders with Iraq and Turkey.
The opposition group's claims could not be independently verified. Iranian authorities had no immediate comment.
In Jordan, Canada's foreign minister called the worsening situation in Syria "tremendously horrifying" during a trip Saturday to Jordan's first refugee camp near its northern border with Syria. John Baird said Canada will donate $1.5 million to the World Food Program in Jordan and $2 million for medical supplies for doctors inside Syria.
Worries about spillover chaos from the Syrian civil war have been growing among neighboring countries, particularly in Lebanon where the mix of factions includes loyal Assad supporters such as Hezbollah and others.
Lebanon's official news agency said a military court indicted a pro-Syrian former minister along with one of Assad's top security aides of plotting to carry out terrorist attacks in Lebanon. The National News Agency says the indictment against Joseph Samaha, a former information minister, followed his arrest Thursday. Syrian Brig. Gen. Ali Mamlouk, appointed last month by Assad to head the National Security Council, was indicted in absentia.
Samaha is one of the most ardent Lebanese supporters of the Syrian regime. According to the indictment, Samaha allegedly plotted the assassination of political and religious figures in Lebanon using explosives furnished by Mamlouk.
___Murphy reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.
France24 correspondents Matthieu Mabin and Sofia Amara report from the front lines of a rebel offensive against the Syrian army in Damascus.
Watch the exclusive report in the video below.
Clashes between Assad supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime killed two people in Lebanon on Friday, the Associated Press reports. 17 people were injured.The AP gives more context:
Syria was in virtual control of its smaller neighbor for many years, posting tens of thousands of troops in Lebanon, before withdrawing under pressure in 2005. Even without soldiers on the ground, Syria remains influential, and its civil war has stirred longstanding tensions that have lain under Lebanon's surface.
Read more on HuffPost World.
|@ KenRoth : UN reports 200,000 #Syria refugees, 30,000 in past week alone. Many more internally displaced not counted. http://t.co/BaM6u59j|
Helicopter gunships shelled Damascus on Wednesday as Syrian security forces intensified their assault on the capital. Activists report that at least 47 people were killed.
"The whole of Damascus is shaking with the sound of shelling," a woman in the neighborhood of Kfar Souseh told Reuters.
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|@ jenanmoussa : Graphic. We saw in a mosque in #Syria these 4 children staring at dead body. Pic by @HaraldDoornbos: http://t.co/lgq8IAmO #warsucks @akhbar|
Activists say that Syrian security forces swept through two districts in Damascus on Wednesday, killing at least 31 suspected opposition fighters. The Associated Press reports that the army may have been targeting rebel teams that had been using the Nahr Eishah and Kfar Soussa neighborhoods to shell a nearby military airport.
Read more on HuffPost World.
|@ AP : Russia says Western powers are "openly instigating" opposition groups in Syria: http://t.co/Il6rHsxr -SC|