BEIRUT (Reuters) - Thousands of Syrians chanted “Death to America” on Saturday during funeral processions in Damascus for at least 44 people killed in twin suicide bombings that rocked the capital.
Syria blamed al Qaeda for the blasts which hit two security buildings on Friday and came a day after an Arab League delegation arrived to prepare for monitors who will report on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s implementation of a plan to end the bloodshed.
Some Assad opponents said the attacks could have been staged by the government itself.
The funerals on Saturday turned into pro-Assad rallies in which mourners called for revenge and condemned Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani whose country, once an ally of Assad, is now one of his main critics.
The crowd, carrying posters of Assad and Syrian flags, chanted “We want your head, Hamad” and “We sacrifice our souls and blood for you Bashar” and “God, Syria and Bashar only.”
The coffins, wrapped in Syrian flags, were lined up inside the city’s historic gilded 8th century Umayyad Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites. Many were marked “unknown.”
Both Muslim and Christian clerics attended the funerals which were led by the most senior Sunni Muslim cleric Mufti Ahmad Hassoun, whose son was shot dead by gunmen in the northern province of Idlib in October.
Syria’s state television aired live footage of the funeral processions.
Hassoun said those who carried out the attacks were enemies of “humanity and religion” and accused opposition group the Syrian National Council of being behind the explosions.
“This is a gift from (SNC leader) Burhan Ghalioun and his friends. Have the veils on the eyes of the Arab League (delegation) dropped now so that they see who is the murderer and who is the victim?”
“So that they know that the Syrian army cannot blow up oil pipelines. It cannot kill its own members,” he said.
The Arab League, driven to act by jitters about popular revolts that have overthrown several Arab autocrats this year, imposed sanctions on Syria and suspended its membership of the body.
The explosions in Damascus shocked Syrians. Many adopted the government line of blaming al Qaeda.
Assad has sent tanks and troops to crush nine months of street protests against his rule. The rallies are now increasingly eclipsed by an armed insurgency against his military and security apparatus.
The blasts in central Damascus on Friday signaled a dramatic escalation in violence, which Syrian authorities blame on armed groups they say have killed 2,000 soldiers and security force members this year. The United Nations says Assad’s crackdown has killed more than 5,000 people.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Al Qaeda are Sunni Muslim militants. Assad and Syria’s power elite belong to the Alawite branch of Shi’ite Islam while the majority of Syrians, including protesters and insurgents, are Sunnis.
After the blasts Syria’s state television showed what it called spontaneous protests in Damascus condemning the attacks and pledging loyalty to Assad.
Reporting by Mariam Karouny