DAMASCUS - Twin bombs exploded near a tightly guarded government compound in the heart of Damascus on Sunday, state media said, as new international peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said change in Syria was “unavoidable.”
Four people were wounded in the twin bombings which struck in the Abu Remmaneh district where several security service buildings and the office of Vice President Faruq al-Shara are located, state television said.
The attack, which state media blamed on “terrorists” - the government’s standard term for rebels fighting to end Assad’s rule - came a day after a bombing killed 15 people in a southern suburb of Damascus.
They were among at least 168 people killed on Saturday - 110 civilians, 32 soldiers and 26 rebels, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The watchdog gave a preliminary toll of 40 people killed countrywide on Sunday - 21 civilians, 12 soldiers and three rebels.
Shara is the highest-ranking Sunni Muslim in Assad’s minority Alawite-led government and was the subject of repeated defection rumours last month before he made a public appearance during a visit by a senior envoy from key ally Iran.
The Ahfad al-Rasul brigade of the rebel Free Syrian Army claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement on Facebook, in which it also threatened to attack Assad’s palace.
State media earlier Sunday reported that a car bomb explosion near a mosque at Sbeneh in the southern outskirts of the capital the previous day killed 15 people. Sbeneh is a poor neighbourhood where anti-government sentiment is strong.
Also Sunday, the Britain-based Observatory reported that the army had targeted homes in the capital for destruction, using bulldozers.
It said regime forces stormed the restive outskirts of the upscale Damascus district of Mazzeh, demolishing three shops and five homes. The violence in the capital came as the army renewed its bombardment of rebel-held areas in the provinces.
Shelling of Qusayr destroyed the last working bakery in the rebel-held part of the central town, activists said, aggravating a growing food shortage and highlighting the plight of civilians trapped by the fighting.
An army assault on a rural area of the central Syrian province of Hama killed at least 21 people, a monitoring group said.
“The number of victims of a military operation in the area of Al-Fan is likely to rise, because several people have been reported missing, while some of the wounded are in a critical condition,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Brahimi, who took over as international peace envoy on Saturday, told Al-Jazeera that “change is necessary, indispensable, unavoidable.”
He said his position was to engage all the parties and he would not be drawn on Assad’s future.
“It is too early to speak about who should go and who should stay,” he told the channel.
“This is not a step backwards. Mr Assad is there and is the president of the present government,” he said. “Kofi talked to him, and I will talk to him.”
Similar comments by the veteran Algerian diplomat soon after his nomination last month drew an angry reaction from Syria’s exiled opposition, which accused him of giving Assad’s regime a “licence to kill.”
Brahimi, who will formally take the reins in handover ceremony with Annan and UN chief Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday, has been holding meetings at the UN headquarters in New York.
The main opposition Syrian National Council, meanwhile, has agreed to expand to include more groups opposing Assad and will reform to be more representative, a spokesman told AFP. At a meeting in Stockholm late Saturday, the SNC agreed to expand its membership and to hold a vote later this month to elect its leadership, spokesman George Sabra said.
Egypt’s president is too new in his post and doesn’t fully understand Syrian politics, a Damascus official said Sunday, after Mohamed Mursi publicly sided with those opposed to President Bashar al-Assad.
“We heard the words of President Mursi. If I may say so, it was a disappointment,” Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told Lebanon’s pro-Damascus television channel NBN.
“I think the new Egyptian presidency is not fully developed yet. In my personal view, his dose of reality will increase with the passing of time. We hope that he will be able to reach an understanding of the whole truth of what is happening in Syria, and to take a position at that level.”
In a speech to the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran last Thursday, Mursi denounced the “oppressive regime” in Damascus, which he said had lost all legitimacy.