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Suicide blast in Syrian capital kills at least 15

Tuesday - 4/9/2013, 3:38am  ET

This photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows smoke rising from burned cars after a huge explosion shook the Sabaa Bahrat Square, one of the capital's biggest roundabouts, in Damascus, Syria, Monday, April. 8, 2013. A car bomb rocked a busy residential and commercial district in central Damascus on Monday, killing more than a dozen with many more injured and sending a huge cloud of black smoke billowing over the capital’s skyline, Syrian state-run media said. (AP Photo/SANA)

ALBERT AJI
Associated Press

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) -- A suicide car bomber struck Monday in the financial heart of Syria's capital, killing at least 15 people, damaging the nearby central bank and incinerating cars and trees in the neighborhood.

The attack was the latest in a recent series of bombings to hit Damascus in the civil war, slowly closing in on President Bashar Assad's base of power in the capital. Rebel fighters have chipped away at the regime's hold in northern and eastern Syria, as well as making significant gains in the south, helped in part by an influx of foreign-funded weapons.

The blast was adjacent Sabaa Bahrat Square -- near the state-run Syrian Investment Agency, the Syrian Central Bank and the Finance Ministry -- and dealt a symbolic blow to the nation's ailing economy.

In the early days of the 2-year-old uprising, the grandiose roundabout was home to huge pro-regime demonstrations with a gigantic poster of Assad hung over the central bank headquarters.

The area was a very different scene Monday.

State TV showed several cars on fire and thick black smoke billowing above the tree-lined street. At least six bodies were sprawled on the pavement. Paramedics carried a young woman on a stretcher, her face bloodied and her white shirt stained red. A man placed a T-shirt over a victim whose face was blown off.

Firefighters struggled to extinguish flames that engulfed the two buildings as well as a row of cars near the roundabout. State media put the toll at 15 dead and 146 wounded.

Witnesses said the suicide attacker tried to ram the vehicle into the investment agency but was stopped by guards, forcing the bomber to detonate the explosives at the gate.

Visiting a mosque across the street that was damaged in the blast, Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi described the attack as "the work of cowards" and vowed the army would crush all armed groups fighting the government. Shattered glass and torn curtains littered the mosque's red carpet.

Some people wandering through the twisted metal, body parts and rubble on the street and directed their anger at countries supporting the rebellion.

"I want to say to Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey that the Syrian people stand firm behind their leadership, and they are steadfast and will never kneel down, and we will emerge victorious," said engineer Saeed Halabi, 54, calling the attack a "terrorist and cowardly act."

The U.N. estimates that more than 70,000 people have been killed in the civil war.

The Syrian regime denies there is a popular uprising and refers to the rebels as "terrorists" and "mercenaries," allegedly backed by foreign powers trying to destabilize the country.

The last large explosion in central Damascus took place March 21, when a suicide bomber at a mosque killed 42 people, including a top Sunni Muslim preacher who was an outspoken supporter of Assad.

A month earlier, a suicide car bombing near the ruling Baath Party headquarters -- just blocks away from Monday's attack -- killed 53, according to state media. Anti-regime activists put the death toll from that bombing at 61, which would make it the deadliest in the conflict.

There was no claim of responsibility for any of those bombings.

In the past, the Islamic militant group Jabhat al-Nusra has claimed responsibility for some of the suicide bombings targeting regime and military facilities. The U.S. says the group, which is one of the most effective rebel factions fighting Assad's forces, is linked to al-Qaida and has designated it a terrorist organization.

The bombings, along with now near-daily mortar attacks in the capital, have punctured the sense of normalcy that the regime has tried to cultivate in Damascus. Until recently, the city was largely insulated from the bloodshed and destruction in other urban centers.

The rebels launched an offensive on Damascus in July but were swept out in a punishing counteroffensive. Since then, government warplanes have pounded opposition strongholds on the outskirts, and rebels have managed only small incursions on the city's southern and eastern sides.

The recently elected prime minister of the main Western-backed Syrian opposition bloc, Ghassan Hitto, visited the northern province of Idlib, the Syrian National Coalition said on its Facebook page. The coalition posted photos of Hitto, dressed in a gray suit, meeting with rebel fighters. It was his second trip to Syria since he was selected last month to lead the opposition's interim government, which the U.S. and its allies hope will emerge as the united face of those fighting to topple Assad.

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