53 dead in Damascus car bomb near Baath party HQ

Cars burn following the explosion in Damascus. Picture: AFP
Cars burn following the explosion in Damascus. Picture: AFP
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A massive car bomb killed more than 50 people and wounded 200 in the centre of Damascus yesterday.

The attack, around 11am local time, left a huge crater on a busy road in the Syrian capital, close to offices belonging to the ruling Baath Party of president Bashar al-Assad, and the Russian embassy.

State television showed charred and bloodied bodies strewn across the street after the blast, which it described as a suicide bombing by “terrorists” attempting to topple Mr Assad. It said 53 people were killed.

“It was huge. Everything in the shop turned upside down,” one local resident said. He said three of his employees were injured by flying glass that killed a young girl who was walking by when the bomb went off.

“I pulled her inside the shop but she was almost gone. We couldn’t save her. She was hit in the stomach and head,” he said.

The centre of Damascus has been relatively insulated from almost two years of unrest and civil war in which around 70,000 people have been killed across Syria, but the bloodshed has shattered suburbs around the capital.

Rebels who control districts to the south and east of Damascus have attacked Mr Assad’s power base for nearly a month and struck with devastating bombs over the past year.

The al-Qaeda-linked rebel group, Jabhat al-Nusra, which claimed responsibility for several of those bombs, said it carried out 17 attacks around Damascus in the first half of February, including at least seven bombings.

Activists said most of the victims of Thursday’s attack in the capital’s Mazraa district were civilians, including children, possibly from a school behind the Baath building. Opposition activists reported further blasts elsewhere in Damascus throughout yesterday.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors violence via a network of sources inside Syria, said the Mazraa car bomb was detonated at a checkpoint close to the Baath building, about 700ft from the Russian embassy.

It said 56 people were killed, of which at least 15 were from Syria’s security forces and the rest civilians. Eight other people were killed by a car bomb in the Barzeh district of north-east Damascus, one of several explosions which followed the ­Mazraa attack.

Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency quoted a diplomat as saying the Mazraa blast blew out windows at the Russian embassy, but no employees were wounded. “The building has really been damaged … The windows are shattered,” the diplomat said.

The vehicle was estimated to be carrying up to 1.5 tonnes of explosives, Damascus governor Bishr Sabban said.

A correspondent for Syrian television said he saw seven body bags with corpses at the scene. He counted 17 burnt-out cars and another 40 that were destroyed or badly damaged by the force of the blast, which ripped a crater 5ft deep into the road.

Syrian TV said security forces had detained a would-be suicide bomber with five bombs in his car, with one of the bombs weighing more than 650lb.

In the southern city of Deraa, where the uprising against Mr Assad erupted in March 2011, warplanes bombed the old district for the first time in nearly two years of conflict, killing 18 people, activists said.

A rebel officer in the Tawheed al-Janoub brigade, which led a rebel offensive this week in Deraa, said there were at least five airstrikes on the city yesterday. Fighting has intensified in southern Syria in recent weeks, leading to a sharp increase in refugee flows to neighbouring Jordan, according to officials. A Jordanian military source said 4,288 refugees had arrived in the past 24 hours.