Thousands of regime backers massed at a mosque in the Syrian capital Saturday for funeral prayers for policemen killed in a Damascus bombing, as the government vowed to respond with an "iron fist" to security threats.
Coffins bearing 11 policemen, covered with Syrian flags, were brought into the Al-Hassan mosque for the prayers, a day after the explosion ripped through a Damascus intersection, killing 26 people and wounding 63. Officials said the attack was a suicide bombing, the second in two weeks to hit the normally quiet Syrian capital.
The regime of President Bashar Assad has touted the attacks as proof that it is being targeted by "terrorists." But the country's opposition demanded an independent investigation, accusing forces loyal to the Syrian regime of being behind the bombing to tarnish a 10-month-old uprising against Assad. The bombings have coincided with a mission by Arab League observers investigating Syria's crackdown on the protest.
In the hours after the bombing, Syrian troops opened fire on demonstrators holding anti-Assad sit-ins in two parts of the country, killing one and wounding at least 20, activists said. In other shootings, security forces killed at least six more people, activists said.
Friday's blast took place in Damascus' Midan neighborhood, one of the few parts of the heavily controlled capital that have seen protests against the regime. The Al-Hassan mosque, where Saturday's prayers took place, has been a launching point for anti-government protest marches following weekly prayers.
But on Saturday, it was swamped by Assad supporters.
Thousands of mourners outside the mosque chanted, "Freedom became terrorism. We are not scared of America, the mother of terrorism." Others chanted, "the people want the state of emergency," referring to the decades-old emergency laws that Assad lifted in April as part of reforms he promised.
A group of women wore black shirts emblazoned with Assad's picture, labeled "the Shield of Syria," as policemen lined up to salute their slain comrades.
Information Minister Adnan Mahmoud told reporters inside the mosque that the explosion "is part of the scheme based on terrorism and killing that has been targeting Syria since nine months."
The minister of religious affairs, Abdul-Sattar al-Sayyed, said these "criminal groups that carried out this attack would not undermine our steadfastness. We should stand in front of this conspiracy that has wracked the homeland."
Dahida Abdul-Rahman, 50-year-old housewife at the prayers, said the Arab observers should be thrown out of the country. "Since they came, terrorist attacks started," she said.
Two weeks ago, twin suicide bombings hit two intelligence agencies in the capital, killing 44 people.
Friday's blast hit a police bus and damaged a nearby police station, though it was impossible to determine what the exact target was. Afterward, the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of police and security forces, vowed to use an "iron fist" against threats.
The violence marks a dramatic escalation of bloodshed in Syria as Arab League observers tour the country to investigate Assad's bloody crackdown on dissent. The monitoring mission will issue its first findings Sunday at a meeting in Cairo and its chief Lt. Gen. Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi is scheduled to leave Syria on Saturday on his way to Egypt to give his report.
In Cairo, Arab League Deputy Secretary-General Ahmed bin Helli said al-Dabi will brief the League committee with photographs, maps and comprehensive information on what they witnessed. Bin Helli told reporters the mission should be given the chance to prove itself and get support from new observers and equipment.
Arab League official Adnan al-Khudeir, who heads the operations room that the monitors report to, said there are 153 observers currently in Syria, and that number increases to 163 with the arrival on Saturday of 10 Jordanian monitors.
The Local Coordination Committees activist group said Syrian troops fired late Friday upon scores of protesters who have been camped out in the central square of the northern town of Saraqeb for eight days. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported at least 20 were wounded.
Both groups also reported attacks by troops on Saturday on another sit-in in the restive central city of Homs, during which at least one person was killed.
A Homs-based activist said troops attacked the protesters in a public garden, killing at least one. He added that army defectors fought back and pushed troops away.
"We live in a state of fear and our extreme fear comes from snipers," said Majd Amer who lives close to where the sit-in was held. He said thousands of people have been participating in the sit-in since Thursday.
The Observatory said security forces killed six other people Saturday.
While many of the anti-government protests sweeping the country remain peaceful, the uprising as a whole has become more violent in recent months as frustrated demonstrators take up arms to protect themselves from the steady military assault. An increasing number of army defectors also have launched attacks, killing soldiers and security forces.
The unrest has posed the most serious challenge to the Assad family's 40-year dynasty. The regime's crackdown has led to broad worldwide condemnation and sanctions, weakened the economy and left Assad an international pariah just as he was trying to open up his country and modernize the economy.
The government has long contended that the turmoil in Syria is not an uprising but the work of terrorists and foreign-backed armed gangs.
Also Saturday, Syria's state-run news agency, SANA, said Assad met with Mustafa Kamalak, the leader of a small Turkish Islamist party.
Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency said Assad told Kamalak that reforms in Syria were continuing and that he was supporting efforts for the creation of an opposition and that a new Constitution would emerge before February.
Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb in Cairo and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.
Mroue reported from Beirut and can be reached on http://twitter.com/bmroue