Syrian premier escapes bomb attack in Damascus

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(AP Photo)

(AP Photo)

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syria’s prime minister escaped a brazen assassination attempt Monday when a bomb exploded near his convoy in Damascus, state media reported, in the latest attack to target a top official in President Bashar Assad’s regime.

Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi was not hurt in the explosion in the capital’s western neighborhood of Mazzeh, state TV said. The TV showed footage of heavily damaged cars and debris in the area as firefighters fought to extinguish a large blaze set off by the blast.

The state news agency said al-Halqi condemned the bombing, and quoted him as saying that the assassination attempt exposes how armed groups “are bankrupt” after the latest advances made by Syrian troops around the country.

As evidence that the prime minister was unhurt, the state-run Al-Ikhbariya station said al-Halqi went into a regular weekly meeting with an economic committee straight after the bombing.

The station broadcast video of the prime minister sitting around a table in a room with several other officials. But in comments after the meeting, al-Halqi made no reference to the blast, nor was he asked about it by reporters, leaving doubt as to whether the footage was filmed before or after the bombing.

There were conflicting reports about casualties. The state news agency said one person was killed and several were wounded in the blast. Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said the explosion killed five, including two of al-Halqi’s bodyguards and one of the drivers in his convoy.

Syria’s conflict started with largely peaceful anti-government protests in March 2011 but eventually turned into a civil war that has so far killed more than 70,000 people, according to the United Nations.

The daring attack in the upscale neighborhood, which is home to many embassies and government officials, was another blow to the Assad regime, exposing its vulnerability in the very heart of his power base.

State TV quoted Syria’s Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi as saying that targeting al-Halqi, who is in charge of carrying out the political program to end Syria’s crisis, shows that some in the opposition “reject a political solution.”

In January, al-Halqi formed a ministerial committee to conduct dialogue with opposition groups. The dialogue is part of efforts to implement a peace plan, including a national reconciliation conference, Assad outlined in a speech earlier that month.

The opposition says it will not accept anything less than Assad’s departure, and progress has been made on the dialogue since it was announced.

A Syrian government official told The Associated Press that an improvised explosive device was placed under a car that was parked in the area and was detonated as al-Halqi’s convoy passed. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The attack in the highly secure Mazzeh neighborhood took place only about 100 meters (yards) from the Swiss ambassador’s residence. The posh area also is home to a major military air base. Security forces sealed off the area shortly after the blast, allowing only pedestrians to get near the scene of the bombing.

Damaged cars, their seats soaked with blood, were surrounded by debris. A blackened shell of a school bus was left standing. A man told state TV that none of the students on board were hurt because the explosion went off shortly after they had left the bus and headed into the school.

The attack was not the first targeting a high official in the Syrian capital during the past year.

On July 18, a blast at Syria’s national security building in Damascus during a meeting of Cabinet ministers killed top four officials, including the defense minister and his deputy, who was Assad’s brother-in-law. That attack also wounded the interior minister.

In December, a car bomb targeted the Interior Ministry in Damascus, killing several people and wounding more than 20, including Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar. Initially, Syrian state media said al-Shaar was not hurt in the Dec. 12 blast. News of his wounds emerged a week later, after he was taken to neighboring Lebanon to be treated for a serious back injury.

Earlier in April, Ali Ballan, head of public relations at the Ministry of Social Affairs and a member of Syria’s relief agency, was shot dead while dining in a restaurant in Mazzeh.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Monday’s attack.

Bombings like the one that struck the prime minister’s convoy have been a trademark of Islamic radicals fighting in the rebel ranks, raising concerns about the extremists’ role in Syria’s civil war.

Al-Halqi, a senior member of Assad’s ruling Baath party, took office last year after his predecessor, Riad Hijab, defected to Jordan. Al-Halqi was Syria’s health minister before taking the post. He hails from the southern city of Daraa, the birthplace of the Syrian uprising.

Elsewhere in Syria, the Observatory reported fighting Monday near the Damascus International Airport south of the capital. The group said there were also clashes in the northern neighborhood of Barzeh and shelling of the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, south of Damacus.

The Observatory and another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, reported clashes and air raids around the military helicopter base of Mannagh near the border with Turkey in the northern province of Aleppo. On Sunday, the Aleppo Media Center said that the rebels have seized 60 percent of the Mannagh air base.

Both groups also reported clashes and shelling Monday in the northwestern province of Idlib and the central region of Homs.

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