Damascus (AFP) – Twin blasts at a military base near Damascus by suicide bombers, one driving a bomb-laden ambulance, killed dozens of people while the fate of prisoners held there is unknown, a Human Rights watchdog said on Tuesday.
The attack, the latest in a spate of assaults on Syrian military and government installations, was claimed by the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front, which said it was to avenge Muslims “oppressed or killed” by the regime.
News of the blasts came as UN chief Ban Ki-moon urged President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime to declare a unilateral truce in the almost 19-month conflict, which activists say has killed more than 32,000 people.
“Dozens of people were killed in two suicide attacks against the air force intelligence branch in Harasta” late on Monday, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP, referring to a town just northeast of the capital.
“The fate of hundreds of prisoners being held in the basements of the (building) is still unknown.”
“The regime has not said a word about what happened last night,” added Abdel Rahman.
“I hold the regime responsible for the fate of the prisoners. They shouldn’t be holding all of these people in the first place.”
The observatory said in an earlier statement that Syrian regime artillery hammered Harasta as well as other rebel belts across the country from dawn on Tuesday.
The Al-Nusra Front, which was unknown before the start of the revolt against Assad’s regime but which now regularly issues statements claiming suicide attacks in Syria, said it was behind the Harasta attack.
“In revenge for those who have oppressed or killed Muslims, the decision was taken to strike the Air Force intelligence branch in Harasta,” Al-Nusra said in a statement posted on jihadist online forums.
The group described a three-phase operation in which a suicide bomber drove a car loaded with nine tonnes of explosives to the front of the building, and 25 minutes later, another fighter drove through in a booby-trapped ambulance.
The militants then targeted the area with mortars, according to the statement.
The attack sparked intense fighting between rebels and the army, which at daybreak pounded the town with shells, the UK -based observatory said.
It said Syrian forces also rained shells down on rebel strongholds in the second city of Aleppo on Tuesday, which has been fiercely contested since mid-July, and in Idlib province near the Turkish province.
The army also kept up a siege of rebel neighbourhoods of the city of Homs – Syria’s third largest – and the nearby town of Qusayr, sources on both sides said.
“The army is in the midst of trying to cleanse the last rebel districts of the city of Homs,” a Syrian army commander told AFP.
“The army has already cleansed the villages surrounding Qusayr, and is now trying to take back the town itself,” the commander said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A security official told AFP the army hopes to retake the besieged areas by the end of the week to free up troops for battle zones in the north, such as Aleppo.
“It is a huge operation, and we hope to finish it off by the end of this week,” the source said, again speaking on condition of anonymity.
“After that, we will concentrate on the north of Syria.”
Homs province has suffered some of the worst bloodshed and destruction of the uprising which erupted against Assad’s regime in March last year, but since July the main focus of the conflict has shifted to Aleppo, the northern metropolis of some 1.7 million people.
In Paris, UN chief Ban urged a unilateral truce by Assad’s regime.
“I have conveyed to the Syrian government [a] strong message that they should immediately declare a unilateral ceasefire,” said Ban, addressing a joint news conference with French President Francois Hollande.
With the rebels under some of the fiercest fire since the uprising began almost 19 months ago, the exiled opposition leader Abdel Basset Sayda crossed from Turkey on Monday into rebel-held territory in the north for talks with Free Syrian Army commanders, rebel sources said.
Sayda has been attempting to broaden the base of the exiled opposition bloc but only to those groups that back the armed rebellion against Assad’s rule.
His visit to the town of Bab Al-Hawa, just across the border from Turkey, came with tensions still running high after the shelling of a Turkish border village last week killed five civilians, including a mother and her three children.
A shell from the Syrian side hit the Altinozu district of Turkey’s Hatay province on Monday, causing no casualties but sparking a retaliatory bombardment of Syrian army positions, a Turkish official said.
On Tuesday, Turkey’s top military commander General Necdet Ozel inspected troops in Hatay province near the border with Syria, local media reported.