In an image released by the official Syrian news agency, smoke and flames… (Syrian Arab News Agency )
BEIRUT — A powerful car bomb ripped through central Damascus, the Syrian capital, on Thursday, killing dozens and dramatizing the wide gulf between the persistent violence and fledgling efforts to jump-start peace talks in the country's almost 2-year-old war.
State news media said at least 53 people were killed and 235 injured in a devastating midmorning attack that yielded disturbing images of smoldering vehicles and charred and dismembered bodies scattered about on a usually bustling avenue in the heart of the capital. Most of the victims were pedestrians, motorists and schoolchildren, the news reports said.
The bombing on Al Thawra Street in the Mazraa district was among the most lethal attacks in a city that has been mostly insulated from the violence raging elsewhere in the country. In May, a pair of suicide car bombs outside a military intelligence complex in Damascus reportedly killed 55 and wounded more than 300.
The explosion Thursday reportedly detonated at a checkpoint, one of many in the heavily militarized capital. Dozens of vehicles were set ablaze or battered in the blast, which was heard throughout the city of more than 2 million and sent a thick column of black smoke into the air.
The attack occurred near an office of Syria's ruling Baath Party and not far from the Russian Embassy, which reported some damage but no injuries. It was not clear whether either site was the target.
The government of President Bashar Assad called the blast a suicide attack and said that Syrian troops had thwarted another would-be bomber at the scene.
The bombing comes as rebels based on the city's outskirts have stepped up attacks on Damascus, the well-guarded bastion of Assad and his ruling circle. Rebels have fired mortar rounds into the capital and attacked checkpoints, while the military has responded with aerial bombardment and shelling of the opposition's suburban strongholds.
The latest carnage did little to elevate hopes for a political solution to the crisis. The images of slaughter and mayhem flashed on TV sets as opposition representatives met in Cairo to set a framework for future talks and the Syrian foreign minister was preparing for a trip to Moscow. Russia, Syria's close ally, is seeking to broker negotiations.
Whether peace talks will occur amid the poisoned atmosphere of deep mutual mistrust prevalent in Syria remains a question. The opposition says any talks must lead to Assad's ouster, a position rejected by his government.
The official news media cast Thursday's mayhem as the true face of the opposition, a band of foreign-based Islamic militants, as the regime says, running amok in a nation long known for religious tolerance.
"What on Earth is happening?" one distraught man at the scene told state television. "This is not Islam. We condemn this."
A woman whose face was splattered with blood denounced the rebel Free Syrian Army as "a bunch of thugs and thieves."
The Free Syrian Army blamed the government for the strike and expressed condolences to the victims. The opposition has regularly accused the Assad regime of staging spectacular Al Qaeda-style attacks and then blaming the rebels in an effort to discredit their cause.
Car bombs, however, are known to be in the rebel arsenal, important counterweights to the military's massive firepower advantage.
Both sides in the bloody conflict have vehemently disavowed responsibility for mass-casualty attacks in a war that has killed almost 70,000 people, mostly civilians, according to the United Nations.
While the rebels use car bombs and mortar rounds that often cause indiscriminate damage, government forces have regularly deployed artillery and air power to bombard civilian neighborhoods deemed to be "terrorist dens."
After Thursday's explosion, there were reports of shells fired into the center of the capital, possibly aimed at the military headquarters near Umayyad Square. Residents abandoned the streets, some taking cover in basements, as security forces swarmed the area. The government appeared to respond with artillery from positions on Mt. Qasioun, which overlooks the capital.
Video broadcast on Syrian television showed hellish scenes of the bombing's aftermath.
Charred and burning vehicles were arrayed along a street strewn with mangled and burned bodies and body parts. Firefighters labored to douse lingering blazes, and rescue workers with stretchers struggled to evacuate the injured.
Several dazed survivors sat stunned along the roadside as fires raged in vehicles nearby. One man tried to revive a wounded person lying face-up on the road; another seemed to be trying to crawl toward safety.