DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Suicide bombers targeted security compounds in the Syrian capital on Sunday, killing at least five people and wounding several others, the latest in an uptick of violence in Damascus as the regime tries to defend its seat of power.
A car bomb also killed 12 regime soldiers in the northern city of Aleppo, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists in Syria for information. It had no other details, and the government did not immediately confirm the attack.
The state-run news agency SANA said three suicide bombers blew themselves up while trying to break into the Rukneddine police station in northern Damascus, killing five people and wounding several others. It said three would-be suicide bombers also bombers tried to break into the Criminal Security Branch in the southern Bab Mousalla area but were caught by security forces before they could detonate their explosives.
Activists confirmed the death toll.
Nobody immediately claimed responsibility for the Damascus explosions, but they bore the hallmarks of al-Qaida linked groups that have joined forces with rebels fighting to oust President Bashar Assad.
The attacks in Syria's two largest cities came as Assad's forces press an offensive in the outskirts of the capital and a day after an 11-nation group that includes the U.S. met in the Qatari capital of Doha to coordinate military aid and other forms of assistance to the rebels.
SANA carried a statement by the Interior Ministry saying that the Damascus attacks amount to a "new escalation by terrorist groups," a term used by the government to refer to the rebels.
In neighboring Lebanon, meanwhile, three soldiers were killed in street clashes with supporters of hard-line Sunni cleric Sheik Ahmad al-Assir, in the latest spillover of the Syrian conflict over the border.
The fighting broke out in the predominantly Sunni southern port city of Sidon after al-Assier's supporters opened fire on an army checkpoint.
The military issued a statement saying three soldiers, including two officers, were killed in the shooting, which it said was unprovoked.
Heavy fighting with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades caused panic in the heavily populated city, which until recently had been largely spared the fighting in other areas. Many people who had been spending the day on the beach hurried back home, while others living on high floors came down to lower floors and shelters.
The clashes largely centered around the Bilal bin Rabbah Mosque where al-Assir preaches. The cleric, a virulent critic of the Shiite militant Hezbollah group, is believed to have hundreds of armed supporters in Sidon. Dozens of al-Assir's gunmen also partially shut down the main highway linking south Lebanon with the capital.
The cleric and his followers support Sunni rebels in the conflict next door and he has threatened to clear apartments in Sidon occupied by Hezbollah supporters.
Meanwhile, Syria's al-Thawra newspaper, the mouthpiece of the government, assailed the Friends of Syria meeting for providing aid to the rebels.
"It's clear that the enemies of Syria are rushing to arm the terrorists to kill the chances for holding the Geneva conference," the newspaper said, referring to a gathering planned to bring Assad's government to negotiate an end to the crisis with the fighting rebels.
It pledged that the Syrian army would "continue the showdown to eliminate terrorism and restore security and stability."
Associated Press writer Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan contributed to this report.