DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Twin suicide bombers targeted a police station in the center of Damascus Tuesday, killing 14 people as regime forces aggressively pressed ahead with an offensive on rebel strongholds elsewhere in the country. The rush hour blasts, which caused extensive damage to cars and storefronts, demonstrated the ability of insurgents to strike deep in the heart of President Bashar Assad’s regime despite a series of recent setbacks on the battlefield.
The bombings, which occurred in central Marjeh Square near the Interior Ministry, were the first such attacks to target the capital since regime forces, backed by fighters from the Lebanese Hezbollah group, chased rebels from the strategic town of Qusair nearly a week ago.
Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi said the attacks were a result of “the bankruptcy of the terrorist groups and those behind them because of the exceptional victories of our heroic armed forces all over Syria.”
Al-Halqi said Qusair’s fall has rattled the enemies of Syria and pledged that the army would soon restore security and stability to the entire nation. The regime refers to the rebels as “terrorists.”
Building on its victory in Qusair, the Syrian military has shifted its attention to try to clear rebel-held areas in the central Homs province, a linchpin area linking Damascus with regime strongholds on the Mediterranean coast, and the northern city of Aleppo.
On Tuesday, activists reported intensified clashes in Homs and its suburbs as the army closed in on besieged, rebel-held neighborhoods of the provincial capital.
The push by Assad’s forces has raised alarms in Washington and added a sense of urgency to calls for the international community to arm the rebels. U.S. officials said President Barack Obama and his senior national security staff plan to meet Wednesday to weigh options for providing assistance to the rebel fighters, and a decision could happen later this week.
Syrian state TV quoted a security official as saying two suicide bombers struck in quick succession near a police station in the bustling Marjeh Square Monday morning. He said 14 people were killed and 31 were wounded.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists on the ground in Syria, put the death toll at 15 and said one of the explosions was caused by a man who blew himself up inside the police station while the other detonated his explosives outside the police station. The Observatory said most of those killed were policemen but did not have a specific number.
TV footage showed smashed shop facades and blood splattered on the pavements and inside stores. Paramedics carried the wounded on stretchers to ambulances, walking past cars that were mangled in the blasts.
There was no responsibility claim for the blasts, but past suicide attacks and strikes on security installations have been claimed by the al-Qaida linked Jabhat al-Nusra group. The style of attacks also is a tactic commonly used by al-Qaida and other Sunni extremists.
The high profile presence and growing role of Nusra Front and other extremists and jihadi groups in Syria is one reason why the West is reluctant to provide the rebels in Syria with lethal weapons.
While nothing has been concretely decided, U.S. officials said Obama is leaning closer toward signing off on sending weapons to vetted, moderate rebel units.
Syria’s precarious position in the heart of the Middle East makes the conflict that has already killed 80,000 people extremely unpredictable. The fighting also has increasingly taken on sectarian undertones as Assad enjoys support from many in his Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while the rebels are mainly Sunnis.
Lebanon, across the western border, suffered its own brutal civil war in the 1970s and the 1980s and is already experiencing increased religious tensions. Iraq, to Syria’s east, is mired in worsening violence. And Israel to the southwest has seen shots fired across the contested Golan Heights and has struck what it claimed were advanced weapons convoys heading to Hezbollah, with whom it went to war with in 2006.
Nine rockets landed Tuesday in the predominantly Shiite region of Hermel in northeastern Lebanon, wounding three residents, the Lebanese army said in a statement. Syrian rebels, who have threatened to punish Hebzollah for supporting Assad, are believed to have fired dozens of rockets on the town, which is across the border from Qusair.
The army statement said the rockets damaged property and started a fire in fields in the area. Clouds of smoke were seen rising from the residential area.
The official Lebanese National News Agency also said a 52-year-old Lebanese man was shot dead in Hermel. He was believed to have been carrying Syrians on his motorcycle.
Gunmen from rival religious sects in Lebanon have fought on opposite sides of the conflict, and armed clashes have increased in frequency in past weeks. Lebanese Sunnis mostly back the opposition while many Shiites in Lebanon support Assad.
In other violence in Syria, the Observatory reported clashes between rebels and regime forces in several rebel-held neighborhoods of Homs city, resulting in casualties among the opposition fighters.
A Homs-based activist, who identified himself by his nickname of Abu Bilal al-Homsi for fear of government retaliation, said regime forces were attacking Homs city on two fronts, Bab Hood in the western part of the city and Wadi al-Sayeh in the eastern part.
The Observatory also reported fighting in Aleppo early Tuesday in what appeared to be a regime attempt to storm two neighborhoods held by the opposition.
Activists in Aleppo and Homs have claimed that Hezbollah fighters have joined the military operations in the two cities.
Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report.