Suicide blast near church in Damascus kills 4

ALBERT AJI
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This photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows a Syrian security agent looking at a damaged antique shop after a blast struck in the vicinity of the Greek Orthodox Virgin Mary Church in the predominantly Christian neighborhood of Bab Sharqi in central Damascus, Syria, Thursday, June 27, 2013. A suicide attacker blew himself up near one of the main churches in the Syrian capital Thursday, killing several people, state-run TV said. (AP Photo/SANA)

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — A suicide attacker blew himself up near one of the main churches of the Syrian capital Thursday, killing at least four people, state-run TV said.

The blast struck in the vicinity of the Greek Orthodox Virgin Mary Church in the predominantly Christian neighborhood of Bab Sharqi in Damascus' Old City, the broadcast said, although it was not clear if the church was the attacker's target. Several also were wounded in the explosion, the TV said, without giving further details.

A government official told The Associated Press that the suicide attacker was wearing an explosive belt and blew himself up near the church. Both the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, and state TV said at least four people were killed. State-run news agency SANA said the blast also wounded eight people.

An AP reporter who visited the area saw that the explosion occurred about 50 meters (yards) from the church and damaged several shops. An antiques shop suffered the worst damage, its windows shattered and objects strewn about.

"I heard an explosion then glass started flying and the place was full of dust," said Abdo Muqri, the owner of the shop who suffered injuries in his right arm and forehead. "I was watching television inside. Had I been near the door I would have been dead."

State-owned Al-Ikhbariya TV aired footage of the area showing a dead man a few meters from the shop. It also showed what appeared to be human flesh on a nearby tree.

About three hours after the blast occurred, two shells struck the area. A wounded man and a woman were seen being rushed away from the area, famous for its narrow streets and old buildings.

Rebels have fired mortars at central Damascus in the past.

Bab Sharqi and the nearby Bab Touma, two main areas of the city's famed old quarter, were famous for their restaurants and cafes that used to be packed until late at night.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the bombing. Damascus has been hit by a wave of suicide attacks that have killed and wounded scores of people.

Lebanon's Al-Mayadeen TV, which has reporters in Damascus, said the target of the attack appeared to be a nearby post of the National Defense Forces, a paramilitary force fighting against rebels trying to topple President Bashar Assad.

Residents in the area said they did not know what the target of the blast was, with some saying the attacker may have blown himself up prematurely. Pro-government gunmen were seen roaming the streets after the blast.

Churches have been targeted in the past, mostly in the central city of Homs and Syria's largest city of Aleppo in the north. In April, two bishops were kidnapped in northern Syria. They are still missing.

Syria's conflict started with largely peaceful protests against Assad's regime in March 2011 but eventually turned into a civil war. Nearly 93,000 people have been killed in the fighting so far, according to the United Nations.

Christians are one of the largest religious minorities in the country, composing about 10 percent of Syria's population of 23 million people. They have tried to stay on the sidelines of the conflict, although the opposition's increasingly outspoken Islamism has prompted many to lean toward the regime.