Peace shattered in Syria as terrorists attack UN building

Anne Penketh
Wednesday 28 April 2004 00:00

Syria's tightly - policed calm was shattered last night when a group of attackers set off bombs and opened fire in two districts of Damascus.

Syria's tightly - policed calm was shattered last night when a group of attackers set off bombs and opened fire in two districts of Damascus.

Four people were killed after a "terrorist band" was confronted by security forces in the diplomatic quarter, where a former United Nations building was badly damaged by fire and many other buildings were hit by bullets and grenades during prolonged fighting. Initial reports said that two of the attackers, a policeman and a civilian, died. Syria's ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha, blamed "unidentified terrorists" for the violence.

The attackers were apparently armed with automatic rifles and grenade launchers. The incidents, lasting more than an hour, began when five or six large explosions rocked a shopping mall owned by the Syrian President Bashir al-Assad at about 7.20pm local time. After the detonation of the main bombs there was a series of smaller explosions.

This was followed by shooting on the Mazza boulevard outside the Canadian and Iranian embassies, about 150 metres from the British residence. A Foreign Office spokeswoman said that there were no injuries to any British members of staff. She added: "We understand it was not aimed at the British ambassador's residence. " Iranian embassy officials also seemed to play down suggestions that their building was a target.

One witness said that four gunmen emerged from a white van on the main Mazza Boulevard in front of the Canadian embassy and started shooting indiscriminately. A police car on patrol in the area rushed to the scene and immediately came under attack. The occupants of the vehicle returned fire and waited until reinforcements arrived. Three gunmen were killed and a fourth was taken into custody, the witness said.

Five cars were gutted and a fire broke out at the building which previously housed United Nations offices.

Marie Okabe, a spokeswoman in New York for the United Nations, confirmed that a building formerly occupied by the UN in Damascus had been hit. She said the building may have been the former offices of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (Undof), which oversees an agreement between Israeli and Syrian forces in the Golan Heights.

"It is our understanding that a building formerly occupied by Undof, which is still known as a UN building, may have been hit," she said.

But she added that no UN staff had been hurt.

The United Nations Development Fund and its Children's Fund are also in Mazza.

Police explosives experts were taken to the scene to examine the bodies of the dead gunmen to confirm that they were not suicide bombers.

Another witness said the attackers were riding in two cars, who said that two explosions were followed by an exchange of gunfire, and a series of more than 15 smaller explosions.

The official news agency Sana reported that following the clash with police, "the situation is totally under control".

It is the first sign of serious unrest in Syria since ethnic clashes between Kurds and Arabs in the north-east of the country in March, during which 30 people are said to have died.

Tanks were sent to the border with Turkey after riots which began at a football match at which Kurdish fans waved posters of President George Bush while being taunted by Syrian supporters holding up pictures of Saddam Hussein.

Independent information is difficult to obtain because of the repressive nature of the Syrian regime. The Syrian authorities have always put down dissent without mercy. In 1982, in the wake of a rebellion by the Muslim Brotherhood in the northern province of Hama which threatened the regime of president Hafez al-Assad, Syrian forces razed much of the city. As many as 10,000 people were killed, but the Brotherhood was crushed after a five-year war. Syria has not had an extremist Muslim problem since.

America's relations with Syria remain poor. The Bush administration has frequently accused Syria of allowing fighters to cross its borders into Iraq to fight US soldiers. During the war to overthrow Saddam Hussein, US officials accused Syria of allowing senior regime figures to slip across the border.

Jordan has accused Syria of allowing suspected terrorists across the border last month in a foiled plot to attack the American embassy, the prime minister's office and the secret service agency's headquarters, all in Amman.

Syria has denied the accusations that suspected terrorists entered Jordan from Syria, and has said it is trying to stop foreign fighters from crossing into Iraq, but that the long, porous border is hard to police.

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