x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Car bomb explodes near Damascus shrine

Syrian state television says the car was rigged with some 200 kilos of explosives. The bomb left 14 people wounded.

DAMASCUS // A powerful car bomb exploded in the Syrian capital Damascus this morning, killing 17 people and wounding at least 14 others.

According to Syrian officials the vehicle was loaded with 200kg of explosives. It blew up on the main airport road, near the intersection leading to the Saida Zeinab shrine, a Muslim holy site especially popular with Shiite pilgrims from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. The blast ripped a crater in the ground and damaged surrounding buildings, including a school that was empty because of the weekend. A nearby security service base - the possible target - was apparently unscathed. All of those hurt by the bomb are thought to be civilians, although no official details have been released about victims' identities. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, and the Syrian authorities said they would not speculate on the matter until antiterrorism officers had completed an investigation. Involvement of a suicide bomber has not been ruled out. "This is definitely a terrorism attack that occurred in a crowded area. This is a cowardly attack," Gen Bassam Abdel Majeed, the interior minister, told state television. "Smoke filled nearby buildings," one witness told the state television. "I rushed to the street and found a burning car, fire and smoke." Another witness said: "I was sleeping and then the doors came loose, and I felt like I was in the street. Glass windows were destroyed and the ceiling's iron infrastructure was visible. We thought it was an earthquake." It is the third major attack in Syria this year. In February Imad Moughniyah, the military commander of the Lebanese Islamist group Hizbollah, was assassinated by a car bomb while in Damascus. Hizbollah and Iran blamed Israel, an allegation it denies. Last month, Brig Mohammad Suleiman, a senior aide to Bashar Assad, the president, was shot dead on a Mediterranean tourist beach. He was Syria's contact with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog investigating allegations Damascus has a secret atom bomb programme. His murder has delayed the IAEA's investigation, according to Mohammad El Baradei, the agency's head. This latest bombing does not appear to be as carefully targeted as the other attacks, using more potent explosives and producing mass casualties. "There is a security centre that maybe was the target, but it was not harmed," said Ziad Haider, the Damascus correspondent with Arabic language daily Al Wattan. "It looks as if the car exploded on the way to the target and something went wrong and the car exploded." Syria keeps a tight grip on all matters relating to internal security and the authorities have a reputation of maintaining stability, at the expense of political dissent and opposition.

The secular regime also claims to be struggling against regional Islamic fundamentalism, with Syria suffering violence by militants in recent years. In 2006, four Syrians tried to storm the US embassy in Damascus, an assault in which four attackers and a Syrian guard were killed. The same year a militant wearing an explosives belt blew himself up on the Syrian-Lebanese border, after a gun battle with Syrian security forces. Two guards were wounded. Earlier this year, a bloody uprising broke out in a military prison whose inmates included militants captured after fighting American troops in neighbouring Iraq. Few details are clear about the incident, but hard-core jihadis are believed to have started the riot and to have murdered some of the prison staff. Khalid Aboud, secretary of the Syrian parliament, hinted that radicals were likely suspects behind today's bombing. "Whoever organised the attack wanted to send Syria a message," he said. "We have long borders with Iraq and Lebanon, and there are Salafists [Sunni radicals] there, although we are not sure who did it, and will not know until the investigation has been completed." He denied the bomb exposed any serious flaws in Syrian security and said the attack had probably been planned over many weeks and months. The MP also pledged the security services would track down the killers. Radicals have repeatedly called for the Syrian regime to be overthrown. This week, Syrian troops reinforced their northern border with Lebanon, apparently in an effort to prevent smuggling and any infiltration by militants. Some analysts, however, say there has been little real effort by extremists to act against Syria because of Damascus' traditional stance against the US and Israel. Syria has long been accused by Americans of supporting extremists, and of helping channel militants into Iraq to fight against American troops, claims rejected by Damascus. Syria is also a key supporter of Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. However, radicals may have been angered again after Syria's recent re-engagement with the West, ending a long period of diplomatic isolation. Damascus has been holding mediated peace talks with Israel, and Mr Assad has expressed his hopes for direct negotiations to take place under US sponsorship next year. In another move that could have provoked militants, Syria this month agreed to send an ambassador to Baghdad, a sign it formally recognises the Iraqi government. The French and Russian presidents and Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, condemned the bombing. psands@thenational.ae