DAMASCUS, Syria – A suicide car bomber struck Monday in the financial heart of Syria’s capital, killing at least 15 people, damaging the nearby central bank, and incinerating cars and trees in the neighborhood.
The attack was the latest in a recent series of bombings to hit Damascus in the civil war, slowly closing in on President Bashar Assad’s base of power in the capital. Rebel fighters have chipped away at the regime’s hold in northern and eastern Syria, as well as making significant gains in the south, helped in part by an influx of foreign-funded weapons.
The blast was adjacent Sabaa Bahrat Square – near the state-run Syrian Investment Agency, the Syrian Central Bank and the Finance Ministry – and dealt a symbolic blow to the nation’s ailing economy.
In the early days of the 2-year-old uprising, the grandiose roundabout was home to huge pro-regime demonstrations, with a gigantic poster of Assad hung over the central bank headquarters.
The area was a very different scene Monday.
State TV showed several cars on fire and thick black smoke billowing above the tree-lined street. At least six bodies were sprawled on the pavement. Paramedics carried a young woman on a stretcher, her face bloodied and her white shirt stained red. A man placed a T-shirt over a victim whose face was blown off.
Firefighters struggled to extinguish flames that engulfed the two buildings as well as a row of cars near the roundabout. State media put the toll at 15 dead and 146 wounded.
Witnesses said the suicide attacker tried to ram the vehicle into the investment agency but was stopped by guards, forcing the bomber to detonate the explosives at the gate.
Also on Monday, the Syrian government rejected a request by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to allow international inspectors to have access to the whole country to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use in the civil war.
The government is willing to allow the inspectors only into the village of Khan al-Assal in northern Syria, where an attack was alleged to have taken place March 19.
Speaking in the Netherlands, Ban said an advance team of inspectors is waiting in Cyprus, ready to move into Syria immediately to investigate the reported use of chemical weapons.
Syria’s Foreign Ministry swiftly rejected the proposal, saying it would constitute “a violation of Syrian sovereignty.”