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Syrian premier escapes bomb attack in Damascus

Monday - 4/29/2013, 4:22pm  ET

This photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows Syrians inspecting a damaged car at the scene of a car bomb exploded in the capital's western neighborhood of Mazzeh, in Damascus, Syria, Monday, April. 29, 2013. State-run Syrian TV says Prime Minister Wael al-Halqir has escaped unhurt in an assassination attempt when a bomb went off near his convoy. (AP Photo/SANA)

ALBERT AJI
Associated Press

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) -- Syria's prime minister escaped an assassination attempt Monday when a bomb exploded near his convoy in Damascus, state media reported, in the latest attack to target a top government official.

Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi was not hurt in the explosion in the capital's western neighborhood of Mazzeh, state TV said. The TV showed video of heavily damaged cars and debris in the area as firefighters fought to extinguish a large blaze set off by the blast.

A government official said two people were killed and 11 wounded, while the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group said the explosion killed at least five, including two of al-Halqi's bodyguards and one of the drivers in his convoy.

The government official spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give official statements to reporters.

As evidence that the prime minister was unhurt, the state-run Al-Ikhbariya station said al-Halqi went into a regular weekly meeting with an economic committee just after the bombing. The station broadcast video of the prime minister sitting around a table in a room with several other officials.

But in the recorded comments after the meeting, al-Halqi made no reference to the bombing, nor was he asked about it by reporters, leaving doubt as to whether the video was shot before or after the bombing.

The state news agency quoted al-Halqi as saying that the assassination attempt exposed how armed groups "are bankrupt" after the latest advances made by Syrian troops around the country.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Monday's suicide attack. Such bombings have been a trademark of Islamic extremists fighting in the rebel ranks, raising concerns about their role in Syria's civil war.

Syria's conflict started with largely peaceful anti-government protests in March 2011 but eventually turned into a civil war that has so far killed more than 70,000 people, according to the United Nations.

State TV quoted Syria's Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi as saying that targeting al-Halqi, who is in charge of carrying out the political program to end Syria's crisis, shows that some in the opposition "reject a political solution."

In January, al-Halqi formed a ministerial committee for dialogue with opposition groups. The dialogue is part of a peace plan, including a national reconciliation conference, that Assad outlined in a speech that month.

The opposition insists it will not accept anything less than Assad's departure, and no progress has been reported from the dialogue since it was announced.

A Syrian government official told The Associated Press that an improvised explosive device was placed under a car that was parked in the area and was detonated as al-Halqi's convoy passed. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

The attack in the highly secure Mazzeh neighborhood took place only about 100 meters (yards) from the Swiss ambassador's residence. The posh area also is home to a major military air base. Security forces sealed off the area, allowing only pedestrians to get near the scene of the bombing.

Damaged cars, their seats soaked with blood, were surrounded by debris. A blackened shell of a school bus was left standing. A man told state TV that none of the students on board were hurt because the explosion went off shortly after they had left the bus and entered the school.

Later Monday, the Observatory reported that nine people, including four fighters and three civilians, were killed in government airstrikes on al-Halqi's home village of Jassem in the southern province of Daraa.

The attack was just the latest targeting a senior official in the Syrian capital during the past year.

On July 18, a blast at Syria's national security building in Damascus during a meeting of Cabinet ministers killed top four officials, including the defense minister and his deputy, who was Assad's brother-in-law. That attack also wounded the interior minister.

In December, a car bomb targeted the Interior Ministry in Damascus, killing several people and wounding more than 20, including Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar. Initially, Syrian state media said al-Shaar was not hurt in the Dec. 12 blast. News of his wounds emerged a week later, after he was taken to neighboring Lebanon to be treated for a serious back injury.

This month, Ali Ballan, head of public relations at the Ministry of Social Affairs and a member of Syria's relief agency, was shot dead while dining in a restaurant in Mazzeh.

Al-Halqi, a senior member of Assad's ruling Baath party, took office last year after his predecessor, Riad Hijab, defected to Jordan. Al-Halqi was Syria's health minister before taking the post.

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