Two car bombers blew themselves up Friday outside the heavily guarded compounds of Syria's intelligence agencies, killing at least 44 people and wounding 166 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.