BEIRUT (AP) — Convoys of coffins streamed through the streets and mourners fired guns in the air Tuesday as two Syrian coastal towns — government strongholds that had gone relatively untouched throughout the civil war — reeled from coordinated bombings that killed more than 160 people.
Residents of one of the towns, Jableh, described a day of horror as explosions went off in quick succession only a few meters apart, tearing through civilian crowds — then hitting the hospital emergency room where many of the wounded were taken.
"It is really incomprehensible why this happened," said Mohammed Mohammed, a 29-year-old media activist, speaking to The Associated Press by phone from Jableh, where more than 120 people were killed, according to residents and activists. "The number of those killed is unreal."
Altogether, nine bombings hit Jableh and the nearby city of Tartus on Monday, most of them by suicide attackers. The blasts shattered the sense of safety that residents have long enjoyed, living in the Mediterranean coastal enclave that is the strongest bastion of support for President Bashar Assad.
Isolated behind mountain ranges along the coast and under heavy military protection, the region has been spared the physical devastation wreaked on much of the rest of Syria, where entire districts in some cities have been destroyed in fighting. For the past five years, residents have felt the war mainly through loved ones who died in Assad's forces on frontlines elsewhere — or through the thousands who have fled here from fighting.
Monday's bombings, claimed by the Islamic State group, were the first major security breach, bringing the bloodshed to them directly with blasts hitting bus stations, a gas station and the hospital.
In Jableh, a sleepy town on the Mediterranean, funeral after funeral marched through streets emptied of shoppers and commuters, with schools and shops closed, said Mohammed, who runs a Facebook page called Jableh News Network.
"The town is shrouded in black," he said.
Among those killed in the blast at Jableh's bus station were four children from the Hammouda family, aged between four and 14. Mohammed had just returned from their funeral.
He said the children's mother, wounded in the blast, had just been declared dead at the hospital. The children's father, Mazen Hammouda, was a soldier in the Syrian army and died fighting only months ago.
Mohammed said his own father narrowly escaped death. He had been going to meet a friend at the bus station but was delayed by a flat tire. His father's friend, a retired army general who lost his son in the war a few years ago, was killed in the blast.
Mohammed described explosion after explosion starting at around 9:20 a.m. Monday.
The first explosion was at the bus station on the town's outskirts. When he heard the blast, he rushed to the scene to record what happened. As he arrived, another explosion went off at the electricity company nearby, killing at least 12 workers. Two more workers remain missing. Minutes later, an explosion rocked an intersection a few hundred meters from the electricity company, blowing up those standing there.
Mohammed said everyone was moving toward the hospital with the wounded when the last explosion hit inside the crowded emergency room, killing some of the wounded and many among the medical staff.
Tartus, which is home to a Russian naval base and is fiercely loyal to Assad, was particularly considered a sanctuary. Its beaches are dotted with swimmers in the summer and cafes filled with customers.
On Monday, a bomb tore through a packed bus station and a petrol station in Tartus, minutes apart. Many of those killed were ninth grade students who had just finished exams and were taking buses home. A teacher who had been proctoring exams was among the dead.
On Tuesday, Facebook pages were filled with photos of dad or missing students. As funerals got underway, gunfire reverberated across the city a traditional sign of mourning.
Security forces increased checkpoints in the city, stopping cars and pedestrians for searches, according to one resident who spoke on condition of anonymity for security concerns.
In Damascus, Ammar Ismail, a manager of an NGO called Syria my Home and a news website, said callers to a morning radio program he broadcasts on social media were immersed in fear and sadness.
Still, he said, he said his family is still sticking to their annual plans to spend summer vacation in the coastal areas.
Gabi Nakazi, a 60-year-old businessman, said he was concerned about a similar explosions targeting Damascus, seat of Assad's power.
"The message they want to send is that no place is safe," he said.
Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed reporting.