Huge explosion hits the Old City of Damascus killing at least 13 as Syrian unrest continues

 

A taxi rigged with explosives has blown up outside a police station in the Syrian capital, killing at least 13 people.

The bombing occurred as the UN envoy to the nation's crisis was visiting Damascus to push his call for a ceasefire in talks with president Bashar Assad.

The SANA state news agency said 29 people were also wounded in the blast in the Bab Touma neighbourhood, a popular shopping district largely inhabited by Syria's Christian minority.

Once largely immune to the violence that has swept over Syria since the anti-Assad revolt began in March 2011, Damascus has become a frequent target of bombings in recent months.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast, but Islamist groups fighting alongside the rebels have sometimes claimed responsibility for bomb attacks against security targets in the capital.

Vegetable vendor Mohammad Hanbali, 27, said several people wounded in the blast were lying on the street.

"It's a cowardly act, carried out by terrorists," said Mr Hanbali, who was hit by a piece of shrapnel in the left leg.

SANA put the death toll at 13, while the anti-regime Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 10 people were killed in the blast.

In another part of capital, UN and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met Assad as part of his push for a ceasefire between rebels and government forces for the four-day Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which begins October 26.

Mr Brahimi told reporters following a closed-door meeting that he met earlier with Syrian opposition groups inside and outside the country to discuss his truce plan. He said he received "promises" but not a "commitment" from them to honour the ceasefire.

He noted that he "found an overwhelming response" from Assad's opponents to his ceasefire plan and that "all of them have said that it's a good idea which they support".

He declined to reveal Assad's response to his plan, viewed as a preliminary step toward a larger deal.

But SANA said Assad assured Mr Brahimi that he supported his effort, but did not say whether he committed to a truce.

"The president said he is open to any sincere effort to find a political solution to the crisis on the basis of respecting the Syrian sovereignty and rejecting foreign interference," SANA said.

It said Assad also stressed that a political solution must be "based on the principle of halting terrorism, a commitment from the countries involved in supporting, arming and harbouring terrorists in Syria to stop doing such acts".

Syrian authorities blame the anti-government uprising that began in March last year on a foreign conspiracy and accuse Saudi Arabia and Qatar, along with the US, other Western countries and Turkey, of funding, training and arming the rebels, whom they describe as "terrorists".

For months, Turkey served as headquarters for the leaders of the ragtag Free Syrian Army before the rebel group shifted its command to Syria.

Turkey also hosts many meetings of the Syrian National Council opposition group. Relations between Turkey and Syria, once close, have been deteriorating since the crisis began last year and Ankara became one of Assad's harshest critics.

Mr Brahimi said he was "hopeful that the eid in Syria will be calm if not happy." He said that he will return to Syria after the holiday. "If we find that this calm is actually achieved during the Eid and continued, we will try to build on it," he added.

"The Syrian people expect more than a truce for a few days and it is their right, but all we can promise is that we will work hard to achieve their aspirations," he said.

Mr Brahimi arrived in Damascus after a tour of Middle East capitals to drum up support for the ceasefire. A range of countries including Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Germany have backed the idea.

Syrian government forces and rebels have both agreed in the past to internationally brokered ceasefires only to then promptly violate them, and there is little indication that either is willing to stop fighting now.

Elsewhere, in the northern city of Aleppo, a suicide bomber detonated his explosive-laden car in front of the French-Syrian Hospital at al-Zohour Street, causing material damage, but no casualties, SANA said. It said the blast wounded several passers-by, but did not disclose their number.

Anti-regime activists say more than 33,000 people have been killed since the anti-Assad revolt started.

AP

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