11/28/2012 04:48 EST | Updated 01/27/2013 05:12 EST

Twin car bombs near Damascus kill at least 20 people, Syrian hospital officials say

BEIRUT - Twin car bombs ripped through a Damascus suburb Wednesday, killing at least 20 people and leaving dozens critically wounded, according to state media and hospital officials.

The state news agency, SANA, said two cars packed with explosives detonated at 6:45 Wednesday morning. The blasts went off in the capital's eastern Jaramana suburb, a district that is mostly loyal to President Bashar Assad. The area is populated mostly by Christians and Druse, a minority sect.

A series of blasts have struck regime targets in Damascus and elsewhere since last December, raising fears of a rising Islamic militant element among the forces seeking to topple Assad.

SANA said dozens of people were critically injured. There were conflicting reports about the death toll, however.

Two hospital officials, who asked that their names not be used because they are not authorized to speak to the media, said at least 20 bodies were brought to two nearby hospitals. Activists gave a higher toll, with the Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights saying 29 people were killed. The activist group relies on reports from the ground.

The different tolls could not immediately be reconciled. Syria restricts independent media coverage.

The conflict in Syria started 20 months ago as an uprising against Assad, whose family has ruled the country for four decades. The conflict quickly morphed into a civil war, with rebels taking up arms to fight back against a bloody crackdown by the government. According to activists, some 40,000 people have been killed since March 2011.

Assad blames the revolt on a conspiracy to destroy Syria, saying the uprising is being driven by foreign terrorists — not Syrians seeking change.

Analysts say most of those fighting Assad's regime are ordinary Syrians and soldiers who have defected, having become fed up with the authoritarian government. But increasingly, foreign fighters and those adhering to an extremist Islamist ideology are turning up on the front lines.

The rebels try to play down their influence for fear of alienating Western support.