Smoke billows from the scene after a bomb attached to a fuel truck exploded outside a Damascus hotel where UN observers are staying. Source: AP
A huge bomb blast rocked the heart of Damascus yesterday as pressure mounted on the regime, with the world’s largest pan-Islamic bloc poised to suspend Syria over the unrelenting violence.
The US accused Iran of setting up a pro-regime militia in Syria as Washington increasingly ties the prolonging of the conflict – now in its 18th month – to interference by its long-time foe Tehran.
A bomb ripped through a petrol tanker outside the Damascus hotel used by the UN observer mission in Syria and a military headquarters, state television reported, adding that three people had been wounded.
The Free Syrian Army claimed the attack, saying it targeted a regular operational meeting of military officers and members of the pro-government shabiha militia.
It was the latest in a series of bomb blasts that have rocked the city since President Bashar al-Assad’s regime launched a brutal crackdown on dissent in March last year, including an attack that killed three top security chiefs.
Meanwhile, the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, which represents 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide, was poised to suspend Syria at an emergency summit last night in a move opposed by Iran, a staunch ally of the Assad regime.
Syria was suspended from the Arab League last year over its crackdown on the Arab Spring-inspired uprising that Assad has characterised as a plot by Western and rival powers to overthrow his regime.
A final draft statement says Syria should be suspended over “the obstinacy of the Syrian authorities in following the military option” to solve the crisis and for the failure of a UN-Arab League peace plan brokered by Kofi Annan.
It demands that the Assad regime “immediately end all acts of violence” while defending Syria’s “unity, sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity”.
Tensions have been simmering for months between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite-dominated Iran as Syria has emerged as another arena for the longtime rivalry between the two regional heavyweights.
Iran’s arch-foe, the US accused Tehran yesterday of setting up a militia in Syria and urged the Islamic republic to stay out of the conflict.
“It is obvious that Iran has been playing a larger role in Syria in many ways,” US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said.
He said the US had evidence that Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards were “trying to develop, trying to train a militia within Syria to be able to fight on behalf of the regime”.
“We are seeing a growing presence by Iran and that is of deep concern to us. We do not think that Iran ought to play that role at this moment in time, that’s dangerous … it’s adding to the killing that’s going on in Syria,” he said.
Further undermining the regime, Syria’s former prime minister, the highest-profile government figure to defect, on Tuesday night said that the power structure was disintegrating.
“The Syrian regime only controls 30 per cent of Syria’s territory,” Riad Hijab told a news conference in Jordan, where he sought refuge last week in the latest in a string of defections from the Assad government.
The US, which has imposed a raft of tough sanctions to try to force Assad’s departure from office, reacted by lifting an asset freeze imposed on Mr Hijab in a move it said was aimed at encouraging similar defections.
On the ground yesterday, activists reported renewed shelling in rebel-held districts of the key northern hub of Aleppo, seen as pivotal to the outcome of the rebellion, and further security raids in Damascus.