Blasts heighten election fears in Syria

| Tuesday, April 29, 2014, 5:48 p.m.

DAMASCUS — A double car bombing and a mortar strike hit pro-government neighborhoods on Tuesday in two of Syria's largest cities, killing at least 54 people a day after President Bashar Assad declared his candidacy for re-election.

The attacks in Damascus and Homs heightened fears of an escalation before the contentious June 3 vote and showed that despite a series of battlefield setbacks, the rebels remain capable of hitting the government and its core of support.

Now in its fourth year, Syria's conflict has left the country a chaotic tableau of localized battles whose front lines shift back and forth but have little impact on the wider war. The map of control has remained largely unaltered: Assad holds sway in Damascus and the corridor that runs up to the Mediterranean coast; rebels control most of the north along the Turkish border; and the Kurdish minority controls a corner in the northeast.

But the rebels are feeling squeezed in the capital, Damascus, and in Homs, Syria's third-largest city and an opposition stronghold since the beginning of the uprising against Assad. The government has taken a two-pronged approach to crushing resistance in both areas: suffocating blockades that eventually force cease-fires and a fierce offensive along the Lebanese frontier that has severely restricted the flow of weapons and fighters along cross-border supply lines.

Meanwhile, the global chemical weapons watchdog overseeing the destruction of Syria's toxic stockpile will send a fact-finding mission to Syria to investigate allegations by rebels and activists of chlorine gas attacks, the organization said.

The Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Assad's government had agreed to accept the mission and had promised to provide security in areas under its control.

“The mission will carry out its work in the most challenging circumstances,” the OPCW said, referring to the three-year-old conflict between Assad's forces and rebels. It gave no exact date for the mission but said it would take place soon.

Accusations by rebels and Syrian activists of at least three separate chlorine gas attacks by Assad's forces in the last month have exposed the limits of a deal that Assad agreed last year for the destruction of his chemical arsenal.

The accord followed a sarin gas attack on rebel-held outskirts of Damascus last August in which hundreds of people were killed. Washington and its allies blamed Assad's forces for the attack, but Damascus authorities said rebels carried it out to try to force Western military intervention.

In the first independent testing of its kind, conducted exclusivelyfor The Telegraph, soil samples from the scene of three recent attacks in the country were collected by trained individuals and analyzed by a chemical warfare expert.

The Assad regime has transported 92.5 percent of the chemicals to its port of Latakia but has said the remainder is located in an area that presents serious security challenges. The United States and other Western nations say that while they recognize the perils, they believe Syria could move the chemicals if it chose.

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