UN observers inspect the prayer hall of the Sayyida Zeinab shrine which was damaged after a car bomb exploded near the shrine, in a suburb of Damascus, Syria, Thursday June 14, 2012. A car bomb exploded Thursday in a Damascus suburb that is home to a popular Shiite Muslim shrine, wounding at least two people, Syria's state-run news agency SANA reported, while activists said regime troops continued shelling rebellious areas in central Homs province. (AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi)
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — A suicide bomber detonated his van packed with explosives in a Damascus suburb on Thursday, wounding 14 people and damaging one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines, according to Syria's state-run news agency and witnesses.
Tens of thousands of Shiite pilgrims from around the world converge on Sayyida Zainab suburb every year to visit the golden-domed complex with the same name, which is believed to house the remains of the granddaughter of Islam's Prophet Muhammad.
It was not immediately clear whether the bomber intended to target the shrine or a police station that was only 15 meters (yards) away.
Car bombs and suicide bombings have become common in Syria as the 15-month uprising against President Bashar Assad becomes increasingly militarized. But most have targeted security buildings and police buses, symbols of Assad's regime.
As the violence grows more chaotic, it is difficult to assign blame for much of the bloodshed. Western officials say there is little doubt that Islamist extremists, some associated with al-Qaida, have made inroads in Syria as instability has spread.
Witnesses said the bomber detonated an explosives-packed van that he drove into a parking lot about 50 meters (yards) from the shrine despite efforts by guards to stop him. The blast shattered the shrine's windows, knocked down chandeliers and electric ceiling fans and cracked some of its mosaic walls.
Parts from the car detonated by the suicide bomber were found inside the shrine's sprawling complex.
Sheikh Sayyed Mojtaba al-Husseini, the representative of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Syria, accused "terrorists" of the bombing, echoing the government's line that the rebels are foreign agents. Iran is one of Syria's remaining allies.
"They want to turn the people against the government. This is not a revolution, it is a fake reality imported by some Arab leaders who are agents of the West," al-Husseini said.
The site is popular with Iranian and other Shiite pilgrims and tourists.
SANA news agency said 14 people were wounded by the explosion. Six tourist buses and more than 30 cars and a small police bus also were damaged.
"I worked for 10 years before I was able to buy this car," said Amin Daoud, a 35-year-old laborer at the scene of the explosion. "I parked it here last night and now it's totally destroyed."
Walid Aeda, a worker who fled Syria's battered central Homs region and was staying in a hotel near the shrine, said the explosion shattered the glass in his room, wounding his wife who had to get 18 stitches in her head.
"We fled the violence in Homs to come to Damascus and now this," he said.
Troops continued to pound rebel-controlled areas in Homs Thursday, while rebels reportedly clashed with government forces in several other parts of the country.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said three civilians were killed overnight in clashes at the entrances of the Jouret el-Shayyah neighborhood in Homs city. Another died in the rebel-held town of Rastan north of Homs, which has been under intense fire from regime forces for days.
The Observatory said troops were using helicopters and mortars to shell Rastan, adding that many rebels were wounded Thursday.
Activists say some 14,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011.
Syrian forces on Wednesday overran a mountain enclave near the Mediterranean coast, seizing the territory back from rebels after battles that raged for eight days.
State television said regime forces had "cleansed" Haffa of "armed terrorist groups" and the Foreign Ministry urged U.N. observers to immediately head there "to check what the terrorist groups have done."
U.N. observers did not go to Haffa on Wednesday and are assessing the situation to determine when they can successfully reach the town, U.N. peacekeeping spokesman Kieran Dwyer said. On Tuesday, an angry crowd hurled rocks and sticks at the U.N. mission's vehicles, forcing them to turn back. None of the observers was hurt.
Sausan Ghosheh, a spokeswoman for the observers, said they have been trying to reach Haffa since June 7.