DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — A powerful explosion rocked Damascus on Tuesday, causing casualties, Syrian state TV reported, a day after the country's prime minister narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in the heart of the heavily protected capital.
The nature of the explosion was not immediately clear but rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad's regime have increasingly targeted Damascus, the seat of his power. The large bombing, the second in as many days in the capital, seems to be part of the wider violence wracking Syria as the nation's conflict enters its third year.
Damascus residents said they heard a powerful blast and saw thick, black smoke billowing from behind a group of buildings.
Syrian TV said the blast occurred in the central district of Marjeh, although the target was not immediately clear. The TV aired footage of fire trucks at the scene in central Marjeh Square and firefighters trying to extinguish a blaze that engulfed several cars and a nearby building.
A man was seen lying on the ground in a pool of blood while another, apparently wounded man, was seen being carried by civilians into a bus. State-run SANA news agency said there were casualties from the explosion but gave no specific figures.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said nine people were killed in Tuesday's blast. The group, which relies on a network on activists based in Syria, did not immediately provide details on those reported casualties.
Resident said they heard gunfire in the area of the attack immediately after the blast that went off around 11:00 a.m. Damascus time. They all spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals from authorities for speaking to reporters.
The explosion underlined the tenuous security in the Syrian capital, just a day after a remotely detonated improvised explosive devise struck Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi's convoy.
The premier escaped the assassination attempt in the capital's western neighborhood of Mazzeh, and state TV said al-Haliqi was not hurt in the explosion.
But a government official said two people were killed and 11 wounded in the assassination attempt. The official spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give statements to reporters.
The Observatory activist group said Monday's bomb blast killed at least five people, including two of al-Halqi's bodyguards and one of the drivers in his convoy.
The bombing laid bare the vulnerability of Assad's regime and highlighted an accelerating campaign targeting government officials, from mid-level civil servants to the highest echelons of the Syrian regime.
The crisis began with largely peaceful anti-government protests in March 2011, but has since morphed into a civil war that has killed more than 70,000 people, according to the United Nations.
Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Barbara Surk in Beirut contributed to this report.