A passenger train derailed and caught fire in central Syria on Saturday, killing the driver, authorities said. The regime blamed the crash on "saboteurs" tied to the country's four-month-old uprising, but opposition figures dismissed the accusation.
The train was carrying 485 people when it derailed about 3 miles (5 kilometers) outside the central city of Homs, a flashpoint in the uprising against President Bashar Assad. The driver was killed instantly and 14 passengers were injured, rail officials said.
Ghassan Mustafa Abdul-Aal, the governor of Homs, called it a "terrorist and criminal" act and said it was a "clear message" to everyone who says the protest movement is peaceful.
No evidence was provided to support those claims.
The opposition dismissed the accusation and said the regime was trying to seize on the crash to blunt growing support for a peaceful uprising calling for democratic change.
"If there are saboteurs, they belong to the regime," Ammar Qurabi, who heads the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria, told The Associated Press. "They want to send the message that these protests will lead to instability and insecurity in the country."
Syrian authorities have unleashed a brutal crackdown in an effort to crush the revolt, and activists say more than 1,600 civilians have died since the protests erupted in mid-March. The government blames the unrest on terrorists and foreign extremists, not true reform-seekers.
The regime has banned nearly all foreign media and restricted coverage of the uprising, making it nearly impossible to independently verify events on the ground.
The Information Ministry took Syrian journalists to the site to survey the damage, showing several white-and-red carriages that had jumped the tracks and one overturned and charred carriage. The rails appeared to have been ripped apart.
George al-Qaabari, head of the Syrian railway, said "divine intervention" kept the losses to a minimum.
Homs has been at the heart of Syria's uprising.
On Friday, activists and residents reported explosions and gunfire overnight from the area of the Syrian Military College in Homs.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians had flooded the streets nationwide Friday in what has become a weekly show of defiance. At least five people were killed as security forces used batons, bullets and tear gas to disperse protesters in several places, activists said.
The Syrian conflict has become a test of wills between protesters emboldened by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, and an entrenched family dynasty.
Two special advisers to U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon warned that there was a "serious possibility" that Syria has committed crimes against humanity and pointed to "persistent reports of widespread and systematic human rights violations by Syrian security forces responding to anti-government protests across the country."
Zeina Karam can be reached on http://twitter.com/zkaram