BEIRUT – Two booby-trapped vehicles exploded within hours of each other Friday in Syria's once-impregnable capital of Damascus, killing at least five police officers as rebels increasingly target President Bashar Assad's seat of power.
With the civil war intensifying, the head of the Red Cross warned after meeting with Assad that the situation in the country was "rapidly deteriorating." Elsewhere in Damascus, shells struck a Palestinian refugee camp, killing 10 people, state media said.
The uprising began in March 2011, when protests calling for political change were met by a violent government crackdown by government troops. Many in the opposition took up arms, and activists say more than 23,000 people have been killed. The government says more than 4,000 security officers are among the dead.
Damascus was relatively quiet until July, when rebels launched a bold attack, capturing several neighborhoods and setting off a bomb that killed four high-ranking security officials, including the defense minister and Assad's brother-in-law.
Since then, the regime has succeeded in largely quelling a rebel offensive in the capital, but has struggled to contain an opposition push into the northern city of Aleppo, the country's commercial hub.
Friday's first blast in Damascus killed five officers when a motorcycle packed with explosives blew up across the street from a mosque in the Rukneddine neighborhood, state TV said. An Associated Press reporter at the scene said the bomb damaged a nearby medical clinic, staining its walls and the pavement with blood.
There were no casualties in the second blast, a car bomb that went off about two hours later in the upscale Mazze neighborhood near the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Justice, which are about 100 meters (330 feet) apart. Friday is the weekend in Syria and institutions are usually closed.
Fruit peddler Walid Mahmoud said he was 50 meters (165 feet) away from the first explosion.
"It was thunderous, and if I was closer, I would have been killed," he told the AP. "I saw many bodies on the ground."
State TV blamed terrorists, the term the regime uses to describe the rebels. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks.
The blasts came five days after two bombs exploded near the offices of the Syrian military's joint chiefs of staff in Damascus, slightly wounding four officers.
Peter Maurer, the new president of the International Committee of the Red Cross who just returned from a three-day trip to Syria, said he was shocked by the "immense destruction" he saw there.
"Since the conflict erupted, there have been many casualties, and now the situation is rapidly deteriorating even further," Maurer said in Geneva on Friday. He said held "positive" talks with Assad to gain access to detainees and free up deliveries of badly needed aid.
Assad has made similar commitments in the past to other officials.
Syrian state media reported earlier this week that Assad told Maurer that the Red Cross is welcome to operate on the ground in the country as long as it remains "neutral and independent." Assad blames international powers for fomenting the country's uprising.
"The positive commitments I received during my meetings will obviously have to be followed up and tested in the coming weeks," Maurer said Friday. "Each day that passes brings more casualties and human suffering."
Maurer told reporters he also visited rural areas around Damascus where residents told him "horrific accounts of armed attacks" and left him shocked.
Apart from the Red Cross' relief efforts, the U.N. refugee agency says it is scaling up emergency operations for 200,000 people inside Syria who have been displaced by fighting and need medical care, shelter and schools. Agency spokesman Adrian Edwards says its hotlines have been getting tens of thousands of calls for help and its teams have been handing out household items and counseled people at 29 shelters around Damascus in the past two weeks.
The agency says it also is helping well more than 200,000 refugees in neighboring countries.
The Red Cross' assessment of the level of fighting, particularly that it is a civil war, has important legal and humanitarian ramifications because the group's role as overseer of the Geneva Conventions makes it is the arbiter of the rules of war.
"The needs are growing while the violence is expanding," Maurer said. "Many men, women and children who could be saved are dying on a daily basis because they lack access to medical care."
In other violence Friday, several people were either killed or wounded when a Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus was shelled, activists and state media reported.
The Local Coordination Committees, an activist group, said Syrian troops shelled the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk. State-run Syrian TV confirmed violence in the camp but blamed "armed terrorists" firing rockets into the camp, killing 10 people. It added that troops were chasing the gunmen.
When Syria's unrest began, the country's half-million Palestinians at first struggled to stay on the sidelines. But in recent months, young Palestinian refugees — enraged by mounting violence and moved by Arab Spring calls for greater freedoms — have been taking to the streets and even joining the rebels.
At least 60 people were killed Friday around the country, from Idlib and Aleppo in the north to Deir el-Zour in the east to Hama and Homs in the center as well as Daraa to the south, activists said.
Although the Syrian military is far more powerful than the rebels, the regime has been hit by a wave of defections from the army and the government. Most have been conscripts, but as the conflict grinds on, some higher-profile officials and soldiers are defecting.
Brig. Gen. Awad Ahmad al-Ali, who headed the Damascus office of Syria's Criminal Security Directorate, said Friday that he had defected and joined the opposition.
Al-Ali appeared in a video on Al-Arabiya television in front of a revolutionary flag, saying he is leaving "the unjust and illegitimate regime."
Speaking from neighboring Turkey, where the rebels have bases, he added that the Syrian government carried out "evil and horrifying killings that were not even committed by the worst regimes throughout history."
Turkey was once a close ally of Syria, but Assad's response to the uprising has destroyed those ties.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan blasted the Syrian regime at an international conference on peace in the Middle East that was held Friday in Istanbul.
"In Syria, there is a cruel, oppressive dictator, a regime that is carrying out massacres with heavy weapons against its own people," Erdogan said.
Syria has come under deep international isolation because of the violence, although it still has the iron support — including weapons shipments — from allies in Russia and Iran.
On Friday, Canada's Conservative government said it is severing diplomatic relations with Iran, which Canada says is providing military assistance to Syria.
"The Iranian regime is providing increasing military assistance to the Assad regime; it refuses to comply with U.N. resolutions pertaining to its nuclear program; it routinely threatens the existence of Israel, and engages in racist anti-Semitic rhetoric and incitement to genocide," Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said in a statement.