BEIRUT (AP) — A car bomb ripped through a crowded garage near a rebel-held border crossing between Syria and Turkey Thursday, killing at least 29 people in an area that has seen fierce fighting between rival rebel groups, an anti-government activist group said.
The attack came as President Bashar Assad’s forces have seized the momentum of the country’s civil war, now in its fourth year, ahead of presidential elections scheduled for June 3.
Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. and other nations supporting the Syrian opposition agree that the planned election is a “farce” because tens of thousands of Syrians have been displaced by fighting. Kerry said he and his counterparts from 10 other nations agreed at a meeting in London to ramp up every facet of what can be done to assist the Syrian opposition. But he stopped short of promising any U.S. military aid.
Car bombings have become common in Syria as the influence of Islamic extremist groups has risen. Opposition activists have blamed al-Qaida-linked fighters, who are engaged in deadly fighting between rival rebel factions in Syria, although no group claimed responsibility for Thursday’s blast.
An amateur video posted online showed women, men and children at the scene of the blast near the Bab al-Salameh border crossing in the northern province of Aleppo. Several cars and motorcycles were ablaze. People cross the border there on foot so the garage was filled with vehicles transporting people to or from the crossing.
Rebels fighting President Bashar Assad captured the border crossing on the Syrian side in July 2012, opening a key transit point for people and supplies. But the area has seen an uptick in clashes and attacks between rebel groups fighting for control of the crossing in recent months.
“Oh God, may you punish them!” a man shouted as people used fire extinguishers to put out flames consuming two vehicles. The video appeared genuine and matched The Associated Press reporting of the event.
The director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it was not immediately clear if a suicide bomber caused the blast. Rami Abdurrahman said the 29 killed included at least five women and three children. He said dozens more were being treated in Turkish and Syrian hospitals.
The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, also reported the car bombing but said only that it killed and wounded “dozens of people.”
In Turkey, a government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to release the information, said 48 wounded Syrians were brought across the border for treatment and that 13 of them had died. Abdurrahman said he was including the 13 in his death toll.
Syria’s conflict began with largely peaceful protests calling for reforms and transformed into a civil war following a ferocious military crackdown on protesters. More than 150,000 people have died since March 2011, according to activists, and hundreds of thousands of people have been wounded.
The Observatory also said at least 20 government soldiers were killed in a massive bombing after rebels detonated a tunnel packed with explosives under a military base Wednesday in the Wadi Deif area of the northwestern province of Idlib. Abdurrahman did not explain how he got the figure, and Syrian authorities had no comment on the blast.
Another activist, Mohammed Kanaan, who is from the nearby town of Maaret al-Numan but is currently in Turkey, said the rebels had been digging the tunnel for about seven months. He said the tunnel was about 800 to 900 meters (yards) deep and filled with tons of locally made explosives.
An amateur video released by the Islamic Front, a coalition of seven rebel groups, showed debris flying meters up in the air as parts of the base exploded. The video corresponded with the AP reporting about the attack. Kanaan also said the tunnel attack was carried out by the Suqour al-Sham, an Idlib-based group that is part of the Islamic Front.
Also Thursday, The Times of London newspaper said its award winning correspondent, Anthony Loyd, and photographer Jack Hill, were recovering in Turkey after narrowly escaping being taken hostage in Syria.
The newspaper said Thursday the pair had been double-crossed and briefly seized by rebel fighters who had promised to help them cross the border from Syria to Turkey. Loyd was shot in the legs and severely beaten. Hill was also badly beaten.
They were injured while trying to return to Turkey after an assignment in the provincial capital of Aleppo. The paper said they were released after members of the Islamic Front confronted the gang holding the two journalists and their fixer.