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Thousands pray in Syria for bomb victims

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Thousands of regime backers massed at a mosque in the Syrian capital yesterday for funeral prayers for policemen killed in a Damascus bombing, as the government vowed to respond with an "iron fist" to security threats.

Coffins bearing 11 policemen, covered with Syrian flags, were brought into the Al-Hassan mosque for the prayers, a day after the explosion ripped through a Damascus intersection, killing 26 people and wounding 63. Officials said the attack was a suicide bombing, the second in two weeks to hit the normally quiet Syrian capital.

The regime of President Bashar Assad has touted the attacks as proof that it is being targeted by "terrorists." But the country's opposition demanded an independent investigation, accusing forces loyal to the Syrian regime of being behind the bombing to tarnish a 10-month-old uprising against Assad.

The bombings have coincided with a mission by Arab League observers investigating Syria's crackdown on the protest.

In the hours after the bombing, Syrian troops opened fire on demonstrators holding anti-Assad sit-ins in two parts of the country, killing one and wounding at least 20, activists said.

In other shootings, security forces killed at least six more people, activists said.

Friday's blast took place in Damascus' Midan neighborhood, one of the few parts of the heavily controlled capital that have seen protests against the regime.

The Al-Hassan mosque, where yesterday's prayers took place, has been a launching point for anti-government protest marches following weekly prayers.

But yesterday, it was swamped by Assad supporters.

Thousands of mourners outside the mosque chanted: "Freedom became terrorism. We are not scared of America, the mother of terrorism."

The violence marks a dramatic escalation of bloodshed in Syria as Arab League observers tour the country to investigate Assad's bloody crackdown on dissent.

The monitoring mission will issue its first findings today at a meeting in Cairo, and its chief, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, was scheduled to leave Syria yesterday on his way to Egypt to give his report.

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