BEIRUT (AP) — In synchronized attacks, insurgents stormed into heavily guarded security offices in Syria's central Homs city, clashed with troops and then blew themselves up, killing a senior officer and at least 31 others, state media and officials reported.
The swift, high-profile attacks against the Military Intelligence and State Security offices, among Syria's most powerful, were claimed by an al-Qaida-linked insurgent coalition known as the Levant Liberation Committee. A Syrian lawmaker on a state-affiliated TV station called it a "heavy blow" to Syria's security apparatuses.
The attacks came as Syrian government and opposition delegates meet in Geneva in U.N.-mediated talks aimed at building momentum toward peace despite low expectations of a breakthrough. The U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura called the attacks "tragic."
"Every time we had talks or a negotiation, there was always someone who was trying to spoil it. We were expecting that," he said.
Syria's ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar al-Ja'afari, who leads Damascus' delegation to Geneva, said the attacks were a message from the "sponsors of terrorism" to the peace talks.
Al-Ja'afari said the attacks will not go unanswered.
No footage or pictures emerged from the typically tightly-secured scene of the attacks in the city center. Activists said the city was on high alert after the attacks, with government troops blocking roads and forcing shops to close.
The government responded with an intense airstrike campaign against the only neighborhood on the city's outskirts still under opposition control and other parts of rural Homs.
The government regained control of the city of Homs — one of the first to rise against President Bashar Assad — in 2015. But al-Waer neighborhood remained in rebel hands. Settlement negotiations to evacuate it have repeatedly faltered.
The attack early Saturday was the most high-profile in a city that has been the scene of repeated suicide attacks since the government regained control. The head of Military Intelligence services Maj. Gen Hassan Daeboul, who was killed in Saturday's attack, had been transferred from the capital to Homs last year to address security failures in the city, according to local media reports at the time.
Daeboul was killed by one of the suicide bombers, according to Syrian State News Agency SANA.
Saturday attacks are among the most spectacular perpetrated against security agencies in the six-year-old conflict. One of the most dramatic attacks came in July 2012, when insurgents detonated explosives inside a high-level crisis meeting in Damascus, killing four top government officials, including the brother-in-law of President Bashar Assad and the then-defense minister.
Details emerging of the Saturday attacks reveal coordinated attacks that used a combination of armed assault and suicide attacks to breach the security offices.
The governor of Homs Province, Talal Barzani, told The Associated Press three blasts in total killed more than 32 people. He said the attackers were wearing suicide belts, which they detonated in the security offices. The two agencies are two kilometers (1.2 miles) apart, and according to activists from the city they are heavily guarded, and monitored with security cameras.
According to state-affiliated al-Ikhbariya TV, at least six assailants attacked the two security compounds in Homs' adjacent al-Ghouta and al-Mahata neighborhoods, clashing with security officers before at least two of them detonated explosive vests. It was not clear if there are any civilians among the casualties.
The head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights Rami Abdurrahman said the synchronized attacks killed at least 42 security officers and personnel.
The differing casualty estimates could not be immediately reconciled and are not uncommon in the immediate aftermath of violence in Syria.
Abdurrahman said the attacks started with clashes at the checkpoints. Then, three suicide bombers blew themselves up consecutively inside the courtyard of the Military Intelligence Services building as troops gathered. The attack briefly undermined the troops' control of the building, said Abdurrahman. That attack killed at least 30, the Observatory said.
In the meantime, a similar scenario was playing out at the State Security branch, where at least 12 were killed. Brigadier Ibrahim Darwish, head of the agency, was also critically wounded, according to al-Ikhbariya.
An al-Qaida-linked insurgent coalition, the Levant Liberation Committee, said five attackers stormed the two different security offices. The group said bombs were also detonated at checkpoints outside the buildings just as rescuers were arriving, leading to more casualties, according to a statement on their Telegram channel.
A Homs-based opposition activist Bebars al-Talawy said the attackers used gun-silencers in their initial attack, enabling them to enter the premise and surprise their target.
"This is the biggest breach of security agencies in Homs," al-Talawy said, speaking in a Skype interview. "They were almost inside the offices."
Al-Talawy said Daeboul was in charge of negotiating surrender deals with the rebel holdouts in al-Waer and other rebel-held areas in rural Homs.
The Syrian security forces run a vast intelligence network that enjoys great power and operates with little judicial oversight. Rights groups and Syria monitors hold the various branches responsible for mass arrests, torture, extrajudicial killings and firing on protesters.
In a February report, Amnesty International reported that between 5,000 and 13,000 people were killed in mass hangings in the military's Saydnaya prison in Damascus between 2011 and 2015. It said the detainees were sent to the prison from around the country by the state's four main security branches, including Military Intelligence.
After the attacks, Syrian opposition activists took to social media to recount stories of torture and abuse for which Daeboul was allegedly responsible. Before Homs, he managed a military intelligence unit believed responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses.
Meanwhile, government supporters hailed him as one of the country's best security officers, who "broke the back of the terrorists," a pro-government Facebook page posted. The government refers to all opposition as "terrorists."
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, Philip Issa in Beirut, and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.