DAMASCUS // An explosion near a Shiite shrine in Damascus yesterday morning sparked frantic speculation of a bomb attack but the government said the blast was caused by an overinflated coach tyre. Three people were killed, according to the Syrian authorities. It was powerful enough that debris broke windows more than 10 metres away. Early news reports suggested mass casualties and a possible connection between the incident and a visit to Syria by Saeed Jalili, Tehran's chief nuclear negotiator and secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council.
Syrian security forces sealed off the area surrounding the damaged coach at a petrol station in the Sayeda Zeinab suburb, a district that draws tens of thousands of Shiite pilgrims from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon each year. The Syrian interior minister, Saeed Sammur, was dispatched to the scene. The presence of such a high level official added to fears that the situation was serious, however, he told journalists there had not been a bombing.
"It is not a terrorist act at all," he said. "It happened while one of the empty bus's tyres was being repaired. An explosion took place as a result of the excessive pressure. "Two workers who were repairing the tyre and the bus's driver, who was standing near them, were killed in the explosion." It was an explanation that did little to dampen rumours that something more deliberate had actually taken place.
There were no other casualties reported. Mohammed Issa, the director of the Khomeini Hospital, next to the blast site, told the AFP news agency that one of the dead was a 12-year-old boy who worked at the petrol station where the tyre was being repaired. Damage to the coach, parked in the service station's tyre changing area, was significant although nothing like that caused by car bombings in neighbouring Iraq.
Syria hosts hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and there have been repeated warnings of violence spilling across the border. That has not happened in any major scale, at least in part because of the tight control exercised by Syrian security forces, which take a hard line stance on any form of dissent, in particular sectarian discord. In September 2008 a car bomb exploded outside a main security office in Damascus, killing 17 people and wounded 14. That was the deadliest attack of its kind here in more than 10 years.
While bombings are rare in Syria, accidents involving coaches are not. Hundreds die on the roads each year. And there is little in the way of health and safety legislation at petrol stations where it is not uncommon to see people smoking as they pump fuel into their cars. firstname.lastname@example.org