AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — A car bomb ripped through Syria's largest city of Aleppo on Sunday, killing at least 17 people and wounding 40 in one of the main battlegrounds of the country's civil war, state-run media said.
State-run TV aired footage of fire trucks trying to extinguish the blaze and rescue workers digging through mounds of rubble. Aleppo's governor, Mohammed Wahid Akkad, was quoted by Syria's official news agency, SANA, as saying 17 dead were civilians.
The fight for Aleppo, a city of 3 million that was once a bastion of support for President Bashar Assad, is critical for both the regime and the opposition. Its fall would give the opposition a major strategic victory with a stronghold in the north near the Turkish border. A rebel defeat, at the very least, would buy Assad more time.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. SANA blamed terrorists, the term the regime uses for rebels. Opposition activists could not immediately be reached comment.
Al-Qaida-style suicide bombings have become increasingly common in Syria, and Western officials say there is little doubt that Islamist extremists, some associated with the terror network, have made inroads in Syria as instability has spread. But the main fighting force looking to oust Assad is the Free Syrian Army, a group made up largely of defected Syrian soldiers.
Earlier Sunday, a Jordanian militant leader linked to al-Qaida warned that his extremist group will launch "deadly attacks" in neighboring Syria to topple Assad, as Damascus lashed out at France for backing Syrian rebels.
In a speech delivered to a crowd protesting outside the prime minister's office in Amman, Mohammad al-Shalabi, better known as Abu Sayyaf, told Assad that "our fighters are coming to get you."
Abu Sayyaf is the head of the Salafi Jihadi group, which produced several al-Qaida linked militants who fought U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 10 years. They are also blamed for the 2002 assassination of US aid worker Laurence Foley outside his Amman home.
The militant leader was himself convicted in 2004 of plotting attacks on Jordanian air bases hosting American trainers, but served his term and was released last year.
Militants linked to al-Qaida, many from Iraq but also reportedly several from Jordan, are believed to have made inroads among Syrian rebels as the civil war their intensifies.
The warning came hours after Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdessi criticized France, saying its growing support for the opposition does nothing but undermine the mission of the new U.N. envoy tasked with brokering a diplomatic solution to the conflict.
France, Syria's one-time colonial ruler, has been one of the most outspoken Western critics of the Assad regime, and announced earlier this month that it has begun sending direct aid and money to five rebel-held Syrian cities as part of its intensified efforts to weaken Assad. It was the first such move by a Western power amid mounting calls for the international community to do more to prevent bloodshed.
Makdessi said France suffers from "schizophrenia" in its approach to the country's conflict.
"On the one hand, it supports Brahimi's mission, while at the same time it makes statements demonstrating that it supports the militarization of the crisis in Syria," Makdessi told The Associated Press.
French officials have acknowledged providing communications and other non-lethal equipment to Syrian rebel forces, but say they won't provide weapons without international agreement. France played a leading role in the international campaign against Libya's dictator Moammar Gadhafi last year.
Diplomatic efforts to solve the seemingly intractable conflict have failed so far. A peace plan by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan never got off the ground and Annan quit his post as special U.N. envoy. He was replaced on Sept. 1 by Lakhdar Brahimi, a 78-year-old former Algerian foreign minister.
Makdessi said Sunday that Syria is "fully committed to cooperating with Brahimi," adding that "the only way to make Brahimi's mission a success is the cooperation of all parties to enable him to bring about calmness and then the political process."
The Assad regime made similar public statements of cooperation when it signed on to Annan's peace plan, only to frequently ignore or outright violate its commitments by refusing to pull its troops out of cities and cease its shelling of opposition areas.
Makdessi was implicitly referring to France and Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which Damascus accuses of supporting the rebel Free Syrian Army fighting Assad's military onslaught.
Makdessi said the only way to end the Syrian conflict is a "cease-fire by all parties." He said Assad's army will pull out from the streets "once there is a political process as it is now in a state of self-defense and to protect the civilians."
In Jordan, security officials say in private that Abu Sayyaf's group comprises several hundred activists. The group regularly faces crackdowns and arrests, but longterm detention without the filing of criminal charges — a tactic that has been used by other Arab states to keep radical Islamists in prison indefinitely — is not regularly used against the Islamists.
Syria's rebels enjoy widespread sympathy across Sunni Arab countries. Western officials say there is little doubt that Islamist extremists, including fighters from other Muslim countries, have made inroads in Syria as instability has spread. Al-Qaida-style suicide bombings have become increasingly common.
Many of the foreign jihadists going to Syria are believed to come from Iraq, but in June Jordanian police said they arrested two members of Abu Sayyaf's group near the northern border as they tried to cross into Syria.
In his speech, Abu Sayyaf condemned "crimes" committed by Assad's ruling Alawite minority against the majority Sunni Muslims in Syria and said the situation there "prompts us to jihad."
"Take your dirty hands, which are stained with the blood of innocent people, off Sunni Muslims in Syria, or face our deadly attacks," he said. The crowd of about 200 responded with cries of "Allahu Akbar," or God is great.
The rally demanded the release of 40 jailed group members convicted of crimes, like Foley's assassination, links to al-Qaida and terror plots in Jordan, Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Syrian uprising, which began in March 2011 with mostly peaceful protests calling for change, has turned into a civil war. Activists put the death toll at 23,000.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights — a Britain-based monitoring group — said fighting raged across Syria on Sunday, with at least 28 reported killed and scores wounded.
It said an air raid on a residential district in the commercial capital of Aleppo in the north killed at least four people, wounded several more and flattened a residential building. The Free Syrian Army said the strikes came hours after rebels overran army barracks in the Hananu neighborhood.
Activists also reported clashes between government forces and rebels in a Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus, in the central city of Homs, in the northern city of Idlib and in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour.
The Observatory said the heaviest fighting was taking place in Homs, where two bombs exploded in a bus, killing and wounding several military officers and civilians. It did not elaborate.
The Syrian state news agency put the death toll in the explosion at four, including a woman. It said a roadside bomb struck the bus as it was traveling toward Damascus along the Mussyaf-Homs highway. It said the explosion wounded 35 people and left a large crater in the ground.
Aji reported from Damascus, Syria.