REPORTING FROM BEIRUT –- Thousands of government supporters turned out Saturday for the funeral service for victims of a bombing in the Syrian capital, waving flags and holding up pictures of President Bashar Assad, state media reported.
Syria’s Interior Ministry has vowed to strike back with an "iron fist" after what it described as a suicide bombing in Midan, one of the few neighborhoods in central Damascus where major anti-government protests have taken place. Authorities said 26 people were killed, including 15 who have not been identified, and 63 were injured in Friday’s attack.
Crowds lined the streets in Damascus as a procession of ambulances, with lights flashing, transported the flag-draped coffins to Al Hassan mosque for funeral prayers, according to footage broadcast on state television. "The people want Bashar al-Assad," they chanted.
It was the second major attack in the capital in as many weeks. Authorities said 44 people were killed and 166 injured when two suicide car bombers targeted intelligence agencies Dec. 23.
Syrian officials say the bombings are proof that they are up against armed terrorists. Opposition activists have accused the government of staging the bombings to tarnish the image of a mostly peaceful uprising.
An Arab League ministerial committee is scheduled to meet Sunday to review the preliminary findings of an observer mission sent to Syria to monitor the government’s compliance with regional demands to end a violent crackdown on nearly 10 months of protests.
Opposition activists charge that the mission has done little but provide a cover for more bloodshed. They said as many as 35 people were killed Friday as security forces tried to bring the protests to a halt. The violence continued Saturday with at least nine more deaths reported, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists that organizes protests and documents the violence.
Journalists are heavily restricted in Syria, making it difficult to verify the claims of either side.
League officials have urged all sides not to rush to judge the observer mission, which is monitoring compliance with a peace plan calling for the withdrawal of security forces from residential areas, the release of political prisoners and dialogue with the opposition.
-- Alexandra Zavis
Photo: Syrian mourners throw rice in traditional fashion as police honor guards carry the coffin of one of 11 Syrian officers among those killed in an explosion in Damascus on Friday, during a mass funeral procession in the capital Saturday. Credit: Muzaffar Salman / Associated Press