Two car bombers blew themselves up Friday outside the heavily guarded compounds of Syria's intelligence agencies, killing at least 44 people and wounding dozens more in a brazen attack on the powerful security directorates, authorities said.
State-run TV said the al-Qaida terrorist network was possibly to blame for the first suicide car bombings in the nine-month uprising against authoritarian President Bashar Assad.
The opposition, however, immediately questioned the government's account and hinted the regime itself could have been behind the attack, noting it came during a visit by Arab League observers investigating Assad's bloody crackdown of the popular revolt.
The government has long contended that the turmoil in Syria this year is not an uprising but the work of terrorists and foreign-backed armed gangs.
Syrian officials said a suicide attacker detonated his explosives-laden car as he waited behind a vehicle driven by a retired general who was trying to enter a military intelligence building in Damascus' upscale Kfar Sousa district. About a minute later, a second attacker blew up his SUV at the gate of the General Intelligence Agency, the officials said.
Government officials took the Arab League observers to the scene of the explosions and said it supported their accounts of who was behind the violence.
"We said it from the beginning, this is terrorism. They are killing the army and civilians," Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad told reporters outside the headquarters of the General Intelligence Agency, where bodies still littered the ground.
Alongside him, the head of the Arab League's advance team, Sameer Seif el-Yazal, said, "We are here to see the facts on the ground. ... What we are seeing today is regrettable, the important thing is for things to calm down."
Such attacks are rare in Syria, although security agencies have been targeted in the past.
The impact is also powerful because Damascus is home to the presidential palace and headquarters of security and military bodies. Although the uprising has spread through many parts of Syria, Damascus has been relatively quiet amid the tight control of ruthless security agencies loyal to Assad.
The General Intelligence Agency has been taking a major part in the crackdown against the uprising.
In recent months, dissident soldiers have broken from the military to side with peaceful protesters and have attacked government forces. But Friday's attack was qualitatively different, adding new and ominous dimensions to a conflict that has already brought the country to the brink of civil war.
Omar Idilbi, a member of the Syrian National Council, an anti-regime umbrella group, raised doubts over the authorities' version of events and suggested the regime was trying to make its case to the observers.
The explosions "very mysterious because they happened in heavily guarded areas that are difficult to be penetrated by a car," Idilbi said.
He stopped short of accusing the regime of the bombings, but he said authorities wanted "to give this story" to scare observers from moving around the country and send a message that "Syria is being subjected to acts of terrorism by members of al-Qaida."
Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, said it is highly unlikely the regime was behind the attacks because the blasts harmed its image.
"The regime could blow up a military hospital or a supermarket and then say 'look at what they are doing.' The regime would not blow up its security headquarters," Khashan said. "The regime will take advantage of such events but won't do such things although they could do things that are worse."
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement that Washington condemns the bombings "in the strongest terms." He said it was "crucial" that the attack not impede the work of the Arab League observers and that the regime must "cooperate fully and quickly" with it.
Friday's first blast came at the military intelligence compound at 10:18 a.m., while the second followed at the General Intelligence Agency about a minute later, authorities said.
Mutilated and torn bodies lay amid rubble, twisted debris and burned cars. Bystanders and ambulance workers used blankets and stretchers to carry the bodies as they loaded them into vehicles. Windows were shattered in the nearby state security building, which was targeted by one of the bombs.
"The explosions shook the house. It was frightful," said Nidal Hamidi, a 34-year-old Syrian journalist who lives in Kfar Sousa. Gunfire was heard immediately after the explosion, he said, with apartment windows broken in a 200-yard (meter) circle from the explosions.
The Interior Ministry said in a statement that that 44 people were killed and 166 wounded, including civilians and members of the security forces. Earlier, state TV said most of the dead were civilians but included military and security personnel.
Security officials showed journalists two mangled vehicles they said were used in the attack.
A Syrian military official said the bomb targeting the military intelligence building, the bigger of the two blasts, weighed more than 660 pounds (300 kilograms) and gouged a 6-foot-deep crater. It killed 15 people, among them a retired brigadier general.
The other bomb weighed almost the same, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with military rules.
Maj. Gen. Rustom Ghazaleh, head of military intelligence, said the attacks were proof of a foreign campaign to strike at Syria. "We will fight this project until the last drop of blood," he declared.
In the years before the uprising, Syria had occasional clashes with al-Qaida-linked militants, and the Sunni terrorist network has denounced the regime, which is largely secular and led by Assad's minority Alawite sect, a Shiite offshoot.
In September 2008, a suicide car bomber struck outside a security building on Damascus' southern outskirts, killing 17 people in the deadliest attack in decades.
Friday's blasts came as the government escalated its crackdown this week ahead of the arrival of the Arab League observers. More than 200 people were killed in two days, including an attack Tuesday in which activists and witnesses said troops pounded more than 100 fleeing villagers trapped in a valley with shells and gunfire, killing all of them.
The United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed since March, when the uprising began and the regime responded by deploying tanks and troops to crush protests across Syria.
The Arab League observer team is supposed to verify Syria's implementation of promises to pull back its troops and halt the crackdown. But the regime has said the team will vindicate its claims that terrorists are behind the country's turmoil, with Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem saying it's in Syria's interest for the observers to see what is really happening in the country.
David Hartwell, Middle East political analyst at IHS Jane's in London, said the timing of the bombings "is certain to be viewed with suspicion by the opposition." He said government critics are likely to highlight the timing of the attacks as "more than a little coincidental."
He added that the Arab League "will need to work extremely hard" to show it is not being played by the Syrians in an effort to stall for time.
After the advance team arranges logistics, a group of observers is to head for Syria on Monday to begin work, said Arab League Deputy Secretary-General Ahmed bin Helli. The league had initially said the team would arrive this weekend, and bin Helli gave no reason for the change.
Bin Helli told the broadcaster Al-Jazeera that the bombings didn't alter the plans of the mission but said the team would look into what happened. "We are expecting a lot of details about this crime that left behind this large number of victims," he said.
Activists also reported anti-government protests in several locations across Syria after Friday prayers during which security force shot and killed at least 15 people, mostly in restive Homs province, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, put the death toll at 16.
The LCC added that since the Arab League team arrived, security forces have killed 56 people.
Assad's regime has warned that the turmoil will throw Syria into chaos, religious extremism and sectarian divisions, a message that resonates among Alawites and minority Christians who fear reprisals from the Sunni majority.
Haifa Nashar, a 45-year-old Sunni living in Kfar Sousa, wailed as she stood outside the General Intelligence Agency.
"I've never seen anything like this in my life, may God curse their souls!" she cried. She denounced Qatar, the Arab Gulf nation that has been at the forefront of criticism of Syria and pushed for Arab League sanctions against it.
"There was never any difference between Syrians, Sunnis, Christians and Alawites," she added. "But if this is what they want, then I say Alawites are above anyone else."
Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Zeina Karam contributed to this report from Beirut.