Car bomb explosion kills at least 17 in Syria

The Baltimore Sun

DAMASCUS, Syria - Mystery surrounded a powerful car bomb explosion yesterday that ripped through a residential neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus, killing at least 17 people and injuring 14 others in the deadliest terrorist attack in Syria in more than two decades.

Official Syrian television channels broadcast footage of the blast's aftermath, including a crushed car and the mangled facade of an apartment block with windows blown out. One witness told Syrian television that the bomb was packed into a sedan.

Security forces quickly cordoned off the area. Witnesses described life-threatening injuries, and it was anticipated that the death toll would rise.

Syrian news media quoted sources saying the vehicle was loaded with more than 400 pounds of explosives and blew up between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. in a busy pedestrian area often filled with Lebanese, Iraqi or Iranian religious tourists. The area is near an intersection leading to the tomb of Zainab, a daughter of the Prophet Muhammad who is revered by Islam's Shiite sect, and a small outpost housing security officials.

The Syrian workweek begins Saturday, but the death toll could have been far higher a day earlier. On Friday, mostly Shiite pilgrims finished a religious ceremony near the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. The official Syrian Arab News Agency reported that a counterterrorism unit often deployed against Islamist radicals was dispatched to investigate the attack, which bore the hallmarks of Sunni Arab militant groups inspired by or connected to al-Qaida.

"We cannot accuse any party," Syria's interior minister, Bassam Abdul-Majid, told state television, according to Arab news Web sites. "There are ongoing investigations that will lead us to those who carried it out."

Terrorist strikes targeting civilians are rare in Syria, but assassinations have been on the uptick. A Sunni cleric, a ranking security official and Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyah were among the prominent figures killed in separate incidents in Syria over the past two years.

The bombing was among the worst attacks in decades. On New Year's Eve 1997, a bomb aboard a Damascus bus killed nine, and in 1986, Syria accused former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein of masterminding a series of bombings that left at least 140 dead.

Syrian authorities thwarted a 2006 car-bomb attack aimed at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus. In 2004, four died in a gun battle after an attack by suspected Islamic militants in a diplomatic district of Damascus.

A spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood condemned the new attack and blamed the government's security apparatus for focusing on political opponents instead of security threats. "We don't think there is any group in Syria that can be labeled as 'terrorist' or that can carry out such an operation," London-based Zoheir Salem told Al-Jazeera.

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