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2004-04-28

Damascus Gunbattle Kills Four After Bombing In Diplomatic Quarter

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At least four people were killed yesterday in an unprecedented clash between Syrian police and a team of bombers in the Syrian capital of Damascus. We speak with British journalist and Syria expert Patrick Seale who says, "It is not clear whether this was a failed attempt at something bigger, or in fact it was something bigger, which has since been covered up." [includes rush transcript]

At least four people were killed yesterday in an unprecedented clash between Syrian police and a team of bombers in the Syrian capital of Damascus.

Gunmen attacked a former United Nations office in a diplomatic quarter of Damascus, setting off a battle with police that pelted nearby buildings with bullets and grenades. The Syrian government said two of the attackers, a policeman and a civilian were killed in the fighting.

Syrian officials are implying Islamic militants were responsible for the incident and state TV has shown video of weapons including rocket-propelled grenades it said were from a cache used by the bombers.

Violence is almost unheard-of in Syria where the ruling Baath party tightly controls any dissent.

In 1982, the Muslim Brotherhood staged a rebellion in the northern province of Hama. During the clashes, Syrian forces razed much of the city, killing as many as 10,000 people, crushing the Brotherhood after a five-year war.

Last month, Syria about 30 people were killed in clashes between Syrian Kurds and police after a soccer match brawl in the northern town of Kameshli escalated.

  • Patrick Seale, British journalist who has covered the Middle East for over 30 years specializing in Syria. He is the author of Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We go to Patrick Seal, a British journalist covering the Middle East for 30 years, specializing in Syria. His biography is called, "Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East, about the former Syrian leader. Welcome to Democracy Now! Patrick Seale.

PATRICK SEALE: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to what happened in Syria. Did it surprise you yesterday, these explosions?

PATRICK SEALE: It did rather surprise me in that Syria had so far been spared from the sort of attacks, which turkey has suffered from and Saudi Arabia, and indeed, the recent scare in Jordan, just next door. So, Syria had somehow managed to protect itself from attacks by Islamic militants. Partly, it is supposed, it is alleged, that it’s because of the national stance by the Syrian government has adopted and the fact that after all, it does support Islamic militant groups abroad like Hezbollah and Hamas. Nevertheless, that period of indemnity and immunity has come to an end or appears to have come to an end.

AMY GOODMAN: What exactly now does this mean? Do you think we’re going to get any information further about what has happened?

PATRICK SEALE: Well, that is the point. The Syrians are not terribly good at communicating exactly what’s happening. They have a policy of very strict censor such news. Those of us outside the country are still not clear about the scale of the events that took place last night. I mean, eyewitnesses spoke of 14 or 15 explosions. They’re in different parts of the city. It sounds as if it may have been a little bit bigger than the report from the official report that there was one car, containing four or five militants and two are killed and two are captured. So, the truth of the matter is that the whole picture has not yet come out. It is cure you know, of course, that they should have attacked a former U.N. office building, which was then empty. Administrators in the same region as the residents of the British ambassador and also Iranian and Saudi buildings fairly close, but it’s not clear who the attackers were. It’s not clear exactly what their targets were. It’s not clear whether they were able to reach any of these targets. It’s not clear whether the arms cache was discovered before or after these events. Whether this was a failed attempt at something bigger, or in fact it was something bigger, which has since been covered up.

AMY GOODMAN: Patrick Seal, I want to thank you for being with us, a British journalist covering the middle east for 30 years. He has written a biography of the former leader of Syria called, "Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East ."

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