DAMASCUS, Syria — Syria’s prime minister escaped an assassination attempt today when a bomb went off near his convoy in Damascus, state media reported, the latest attack targeting a top official in President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi was unhurt in the bombing 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 explosion.
The daring attack in the upscale neighborhood, which is home to many embassies and government officials, was another blow to the regime, exposing its vulnerability in the very seat of Assad’s powerbase.
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.
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 car drove by. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The state-run Al-Ikhbariya station said al-Halqi went into a regular weekly meeting with an economic committee straight after the bombing and showed him sitting around a table in a room with several other officials.
The TV said it was showing the video as a proof that al-Halqi was not hurt. But the prime minister’s comments after the meeting did not refer to today's blast and he was not asked about it by reporters, leaving doubts as to whether the footage was filmed before or after the bombing.
Later today, state-run news agency SANA said al-Halqi condemned the blast, which killed “several citizens.” The report did not give a casualty toll but claimed that the explosion shows how armed groups “are bankrupt” after the latest advances made by Syrian troops around the country.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said today's bombing killed al-Halqi’s bodyguard and that one of his drivers was in critical condition. The group relies on a network of activist around the country.
The brazen attack in the highly secure Mazzeh neighborhood took place only about 100 meters (yards) from the residence of the Swiss ambassador. The posh area is also home to a major military air base, and security forces sealed it off shortly after the blast, allowing only pedestrians to come close.
At the scene of the bombing, damaged cars were surrounded by debris, their seats soaked with blood. 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 over the past year.
On July 18, a blast at the Syrian national security building in Damascus during a meeting of Cabinet ministers killed 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 brought to neighboring Lebanon for medical treatment 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 dinning in a restaurant in Mazzeh.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for today's attack.
Massive bombings like the one that struck the prime minister’s convoy have been a trademark of Islamic radicals fighting alongside the Syrian rebels, 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 is a member of Assad’s ruling Baath party and hails from the southern city of Daraa, the birthplace of the Syrian uprising.