No new details on identity, motive of Syria bombers

Authorities continue to blame terrorists

April 29, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Retreating into characteristic silence on security threats, Syrian officials disclosed no new information yesterday about the identities or possible motives of the gunmen who set off a bomb near the center of the capital, Damascus, on Tuesday.

While not unusual for Syria, the dearth of details deepened the uncertainty surrounding the incident, a rare burst of violence in a country that keeps tight control over its citizens and deploys several security agencies to quell all forms of dissent.

Authorities continued to say it was "terrorists" who detonated an explosive device under a car in Mazza, a well-to-do residential neighborhood, and lobbed grenades at the police officers who chased them.

Officials also said that Syria's government was not the target.

Ahmad al-Haj Ali, an adviser to the Syrian information minister, told the Arab television channel, al-Jazeera, that the attackers did not have sophisticated weapons but chose Syria as their target to demonstrate that they could strike anywhere.

"They wanted to give the impression that there is no area or place safe from these acts, particularly since Syria has been enjoying a state of stability that is well known on the regional and international level," he said. "They wanted also to give the impression that the U.S. or other targets can be found anywhere."

After the explosion, the police exchanged gunfire with the bombers for more than an hour. A police officer and a woman caught in the crossfire were killed, along with two of the assailants, officials said.

A number of diplomatic buildings, including the Canadian and Iranian embassies, were near the site of the explosion, although only a building once used by the United Nations suffered extensive damage.

Within a few hours of the incident, Syrian authorities announced they had uncovered a cache of weapons in a hideout used by the gunmen in a village south of Damascus.

Western and Arab analysts said they were puzzled over what could have been a motive for a terrorist attack on Syria, which fiercely opposed the American-led war on Iraq and has praised the violent insurgency there as legitimate resistance to an occupying force.

Syria's response to the shooting was relatively muted. The Mazza neighborhood was closed for about four hours after the explosion and the gunbattle. Afterward, curious onlookers were permitted to wander about, looking at the broken glass and damaged building.

Syrian newspapers and radio, which normally offer only state-sanctioned commentary, provided no further clues in their morning-after coverage, restricting themselves to praising the police response to the explosion.

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