x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Bomb kills 13 in Damascus Old City

A taxi rigged with explosives blew up near a police station in the Syrian capital yesterday, killing at least 13 people as the United Nations envoy was visiting to push his call for a ceasefire in talks with President Bashar Al Assad.

A Syrian man looks at a damaged car after a car bomb attack in Bab Touma neighborhood, a popular shopping district largely inhabited by Syria's Christian minority in Damascus.
A Syrian man looks at a damaged car after a car bomb attack in Bab Touma neighborhood, a popular shopping district largely inhabited by Syria's Christian minority in Damascus.

DAMASCUS // A taxi rigged with explosives blew up near a police station in the Syrian capital yesterday, killing at least 13 people as the United Nations envoy was visiting to push his call for a ceasefire in talks with President Bashar Al Assad.

The Sana state news agency said 29 people were also wounded in the blast in front of a police station in the Bab Touma neighbourhood, a popular shopping district in the Old City largely inhabited by Syria's Christian minority.

Once largely immune to the violence that has swept over Syria since the anti-Assad revolt began in March last year, Damascus has become a frequent target of bombings in recent months.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for yesterday's blast, but Islamist groups fighting alongside the rebels have claimed to be behind bomb attacks against security targets in the capital.

Two Syrian officials speaking from the scene said the taxi blew up 50 metres from Bab Touma's main police station.

One eyewitness at the site of the blast said blood stained the street and sidewalks, shards of glass littered the pavement from shattered shop windows and the charred hulks of at least four cars littered the street.

A vegetable vendor, Mohammad Hanbali, 27, said several people wounded in the blast were lying on the street when he rushed to help.

"It's a cowardly act, carried out by terrorists," said Mr Hanbali, who was hit in his left leg by shrapnel.

Sana put the death toll at 13, while the anti-regime Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 10 people were killed in the blast and 15 others wounded.

In another part of capital, the UN and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met Mr Al Assad as part of his push for a ceasefire between rebels and government forces for the four-day Eid Al Adha festival, which begins on Friday.

Mr Brahimi told reporters later that he had met Syrian opposition groups inside and outside the country earlier to discuss his truce plan. He said he received "promises" but not a "commitment" from them to honour a ceasefire.

He noted that he "found an overwhelming response" from Mr Al Assad's opponents to his ceasefire plan and that "all of them have said that it's a good idea which they support".

He declined to reveal Mr Al Assad's response to his plan, viewed as a preliminary step toward a larger deal.

Sana said Mr Assad assured Mr Brahimi that he supported his effort, but did not say whether he committed to a truce.

"The president said he is open to any sincere effort to find a political solution to the crisis on the basis of respecting the Syrian sovereignty and rejecting foreign interference," Sana said.

It said Mr Al Assad also stressed that a political solution must be "based on the principle of halting terrorism, a commitment from the countries involved in supporting, arming and harbouring terrorists in Syria to stop doing such acts".

Syrian authorities blame the anti-government uprising on a foreign conspiracy and accuse Saudi Arabia and Qatar, along with the US, other western countries and Turkey, of funding, training and arming the rebels, whom they describe as "terrorists".

For months, Turkey served as HQ for the leaders of the Free Syrian Army before the rebel group shifted its command to Syria. Turkey also hosts many meetings of the Syrian National Council opposition group. Relations between Turkey and Syria, once close, have been deteriorating since the crisis began last year and Ankara has become one of Mr Al Assad's harshest critics.

Mr Brahimi said he was "hopeful that the Eid in Syria will be calm if not happy". He said he would return to Syria after the holiday. "If we find that this calm is actually achieved during Eid and continued, we will try to build on it," he added.

"The Syrian people expect more than a truce for a few days and it is their right, but all we can promise is that we will work hard to achieve their aspirations," he said.

Mr Brahimi arrived in Damascus on Friday after a tour of Middle East capitals to drum up support for the ceasefire.

Syrian government forces and rebels have both agreed in the past to internationally brokered ceasefires only to promptly violate them.

Elsewhere, in the northern city of Aleppo, a suicide bomber detonated his explosive-laden car in front of the French-Syrian Hospital at Al Zohour Street, causing material damage but no casualties.