A powerful explosion near Syria’s ruling Baath Party building and the Russian Embassy in Damascus on Thursday killed at least 53 people, the state news agency reported.
TV footage showed charred and bloodied bodies strewn across the street after the blast, which state media said was the result of a suicide bombing by “terrorists” battling President Bashar al-Assad.
The Syrian foreign ministry blamed the car bombing on “terrorist” groups linked to the extremist al-Qaeda network.
The attack in Damascus was “carried out by armed terrorist groups linked to Qaeda that receive financial and logistic help from abroad,” the ministry said in a statement, using government terminology for rebels battling the Syrian regime.
The bombing, which rocked the city center and sent thick smoke scudding across the skyline, was followed soon after by a mortar attack on a nearby military headquarters.
Sirens rang out, and machinegun fire was also heard, as firemen rushed to the scene to douse the flames.
A police official told AFP the car bomb exploded at the 16 November Square near the al-Iman mosque, where the ruling Baath party’s head offices are located.
State television said the blast, which left a large crater in a road, killed 53 people and wounded dozens, making it the bloodiest in the capital since twin suicide bombings left 55 people dead on May 10, 2012.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the toll at 42 dead, including nine troops, and dozens wounded.
Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency quoted a diplomat as saying the blast blew out windows at the Russian embassy but no employees were wounded. “The building has really been damaged ... The windows are shattered,” the diplomat said.
The vehicle was carrying between 1 and 1.5 tons of explosives, Damascus Governor Bishr Sabban told Reuters.
A correspondent for Syrian television said he saw seven body bags with corpses at the scene. He counted 17 burnt-out cars and another 40 that were destroyed or badly damaged by the force of the blast, which ripped a crater 1.5 meters deep into the road.
Later, the Observatory reported, two car bombs exploded outside security centers in the northeastern district of Barzeh, but there were no details of casualties.
Syrian TV said security forces detained a would-be suicide bomber with five bombs in his car, one of them weighing 300 kg (440 pounds).
In the southern city of Deraa, where the uprising against Assad erupted in March 2011, warplanes bombed the city’s old district for the first time in nearly two years of conflict, killing 18 people, activists said.
A rebel officer in the Tawheed al-Janoub brigade which led a rebel offensive this week in Deraa said there were at least five air strikes on the city on Thursday.
“The (rebel) attacks on several major checkpoints in the Hayal-Saad neighborhood and its declaration as a liberated area has prompted this response,” said Abdullah Masalmah, an activist from the city, reached on Skype.
Fighting has intensified in southern Syria in recent weeks, leading to a sharp increase in refugee flows to neighboring Jordan, according to officials. A Jordanian military source said 4,288 refugees arrived in the last 24 hours alone.
Nayef Hawatmeh, head of the Damascus-based Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was lightly wounded by an explosion in a mosque next to his office, a DFLP official said.
Talal Abu Tharifa, told Reuters in Gaza that glass fragments had caused a slight wound to Hawatmeh’s hand.