Strong explosion rocks Damascus


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The Independent Online

A strong explosion has rocked the Syrian capital Damascus, sending black smoke billowing into the sky.

The explosion was in the car park at the Palace of Justice, a compound that houses several courts, said state TV.

Syria has been hit by a wave of massive explosions in recent months, killing dozens of people. Most of the explosions targeted the security agencies of President Bashar Assad, who is fighting to end a 15-month-old uprising against his rule.

Last month, an explosion targeted a military intelligence compound south of Damascus killing 55 people. It was Syria's deadliest blast.

Much of the violence that has gripped Syria since the uprising began has been sanctioned by the government to crush dissent.

But rebel fighters are launching increasingly deadly attacks on regime targets, and several massive suicide attacks this year suggest al-Qa'ida or other extremists are joining the fray.

Three Syrian attack helicopters which have been refurbished in Russia will be sent back to Syria, Russian defence officials have reportedly said.

Last week, a cargo ship carrying the helicopters to Syria was forced to turn back after its British insurer removed coverage for the vessel.

Alexander Fomin, the Russian defence official, was quoted by the Ria Novosti news agency as saying that Moscow plans to deliver the helicopters, without specifying how or when.

At least three people were wounded and around 20 cars were damaged, state TV reported.

A reporter at the scene said some cars were charred and many had their windshields blown out.

The blast happened at 1 pm near the capital's Hamidiyeh Market, an area crowded with families stocking up on food and other supplies for the weekend, which begins on Friday in Syria.

Witnesses reported hearing one blast, but TV said two explosions struck the area. The report also said a roadside bomb was found but did not explode.

Major world powers will meet on Saturday in Geneva for talks on Syria, but few observers expect a major breakthrough. Syria has the protection of Russia, a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council, and has so far been impervious to international pressure.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said today that Moscow will not endorse a call for Mr Assad to give up power.

"We are not supporting and will not support any external meddling," he said. "External players must not dictate ... to Syrians, but, first of all, must commit to influencing all the sides in Syria to stop the violence."

Elsewhere in Syria, activists reported clashes between troops and rebels and said more than a dozen people were killed nationwide. Some of the heaviest battles were in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, activists said.