Attackers killed outside US embassy in Damascus

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The Independent Online

Armed Islamic militants attempted to storm the US Embassy in Damascus, Syria, today in a bold attack using automatic rifles, hand grenades and at least one van rigged with explosives.

Syrian security forces killed three of the attackers and no Americans were hurt.

The attackers apparently did not breach the high walls surrounding the white embassy compound in a diplomatic neighbourhood of Damascus.

But a Chinese diplomat was slightly injured by a stray bullet during the attack, China's government news agency said.

A witness said one Syrian guard outside the embassy was also killed, but the government did not immediately confirm that.

At the embassy in Damascus, as at most American embassies worldwide, a local guard force patrols outside the compound's walls while US Marine guards are mostly responsible for guarding classified documents and fighting off attackers inside compounds.

The attack came at a time of high tension between the United States and Syria over the recent Israeli-Hezbollah war in neighbouring Lebanon, and a time of high anti-American sentiment in Damascus.

Syria has seen previous attacks by Islamic militants. In June, Syrian anti-terrorism police fought Islamic militants near the Defence Ministry in a gun battle that killed five people and wounded four.

After the attack, pools of blood lay splattered on the pavement outside the embassy, along with a burned car apparently used by the attackers.

A sports utility vehicle with US diplomatic plates had a bullet hole through its front window, and the glass windows of nearby guard houses also were shattered.

There were conflicting reports of what happened.

Syrian TV said one car was rigged with explosives, but was not detonated by the attackers. But one witness said a second car did explode, and TV footage from the scene showed a burned car.

The Syrian Interior Ministry, which is in charge of police, said a fourth attacker was wounded in the incident, which it called a "terrorist attack". The report, carried on state-run television, said anti-terror units brought "the situation under control" and an investigation was under way.

In Washington, a US State Department spokesman confirmed the attack by "unknown assailants" but had few details.

"Local authorities have responded and are on the scene," said spokesman Kurtis Cooper said. He said he had no further information.

State television said four armed attackers "attempted to storm" the embassy, using automatic rifles and hand grenades. Syrian security guards attacked the gunmen, killing three and wounding a fourth, TV said.

The attackers came in two cars, parked one that was rigged with explosives in front of the embassy but did not blow it up, state-run TV reported. Explosive experts dismantled the bomb, it said.

But a witness told The Associated Press that two gunmen stopped a car on the street in front of the embassy, got out of the car, shot at the Syrian sentries in front of the building's entrance and then detonated the car.

The witness said the security personnel shot back, and security forces in the area rushed to the scene.

Television footage showed a delivery van loaded with pipe bombs strapped to large propane gas canisters outside the embassy. Had the bombs detonated, the explosions would have caused massive damage.

The footage also showed the charred remains of a smaller car parked several feet behind the van.

A Syrian who works at the American Embassy, contacted by The Associated Press by telephone, said there were no US casualties. The employee said the incident started just after 10am (0800BST).

Damascus has been hit by militant attacks in the past. In April 2004, four people were killed in a clash between Syrian police and a team of suspected bombers in the diplomatic quarter of Damascus.

The authorities at that time accused Islamic militants of trying blow up an explosives-laden car near the Canadian embassy.