Syria’s prime minister survived a bomb attack on his convoy in Damascus yesterday, as rebels struck in the heart of president Bashar al-Assad’s capital.
Six people were killed in the blast, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Previous rebel attacks on government targets included a December bombing that injured Mr Assad’s interior minister.
As prime minister, Wael al-Halki wields little power, but the attack highlighted the rebels’ growing ability to target symbols of Mr Assad’s authority in a civil war that, according to the United Nations, has cost more than 70,000 lives.
Mr Assad picked Dr Halki in August to replace Riyadh Hijab, who defected and fled to neighbouring Jordan, weeks after a bombing killed four of the president’s top security advisers.
Yesterday’s blast shook the Mezze district soon after 9am, sending thick black smoke into the sky. The observatory group said one man accompanying Dr Halki had been killed, as well as five passers-by.
State television showed firemen hosing down the charred and mangled remains of a car. Close by was a large white bus, its windows blown out and its seats destroyed by fire. Glass and debris were scattered across several lanes of a main road.
“The terrorist explosion in Mezze was an attempt to target the convoy of the prime minister. Dr Wael al-Halki is well and not hurt at all,” state TV said.
It later broadcast footage of Mr Halki, who appeared composed and unruffled, chairing a meeting.
In comments released by state news agency Sana, Mr Halki condemned the attack as a sign of “bankruptcy and failure of the terrorist groups”, a reference to the rebels battling to overthrow Mr Assad.
Mezze is part of a shrinking “square of security” in central Damascus, where many government and military institutions are based and where senior officials live. Sheltered for nearly two years from the destruction ravaging much of the rest of Syria, it has been sucked into violence as rebel forces based to the east of the capital launch mortar attacks and carry out bombings in the centre.
Mr Assad has lost control of large areas of northern and eastern Syria, faces a growing challenge in the southern province of Deraa, and is battling rebels in many cities. But his forces have been waging powerful ground offensives, backed by artillery and air strikes, against rebel-held territory around the capital and near the central city of Homs, which links Damascus to the heartland of Mr Assad’s minority Alawite sect in the mountains overlooking the Mediterranean.
As part of that offensive, Mr Assad’s forces have probably used chemical weapons, according to the UK and the United States. However, both countries, whose 2003 invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein was based in part on flawed intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, have been cautious in their accusations.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon again appealed yesterday to Syria to allow a team of experts into the country “without delay and without any conditions” to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use.
He told reporters he took seriously a US intelligence report that indicated Syria had twice used chemical weapons.
Syria wants any investigation limited to an incident near Aleppo in March, but Mr Ban wants a broader investigation, which would also cover an alleged incident in Homs in December.
Mr Ban praised the expert team for its “integrity and independence and professionalism”. It is gathering and analysing available evidence, but Mr Ban said onsite activities were essential if the UN was to establish the facts and “clear all the doubts”.