Syria’s state TV said the two massive explosions targeting the regime’s military command centre were set off by suicide car bombers and killed four people.
The report said that the four dead were military guards and that 14 other people were wounded, including civilians and military personnel. It said Wednesday’s blasts went off about 10 minutes apart starting around 7 a.m. (9.30 a.m. IST).
The blasts set off hours of sporadic gunbattles and a raging fire inside the heavily guarded compound, state-run media and witnesses said.
The Army in its earler statement said no military commanders or personnel were hurt in the explosions, one of which was from a car bomb. According to Iranian Press TV, one of its correspondents, 33-year-old Maya Nasser, a Syrian national, died in an exchange of fire in the area following the blasts.
The explosions were the latest to hit the Syrian capital as the country’s civil war intensified and appeared to show the deep reach of the rebels determined to topple President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Syria’s state-run news agency, SANA, said the explosions struck near the landmark Omayyad Square. They were heard several kilometers away and shattered the windows of the Dama Rose hotel and other nearby buildings.
Rebels from the Free Syrian Army claimed responsibility for the bombings in a statement signed by the group’s military council, saying dozens were killed in the attack.
The Army command building was in flames, sending huge columns of thick black smoke that hung over Damascus for several hours following the blasts.
The blasts caused fear among residents of a nearby upscale district, which has largely been sheltered from the violence that plagues other parts of the city.
“What if a random bullet killed one of my kids?” Nada, a 42-year-old mother of three who only gave her first name out of security concerns, said, crying over the telephone. The windows of her apartment were shattered and her furniture was damaged. “I only care about my children and I’m afraid of the gunfire,” she added.
Gaith, 63, a retired civil servant, said he rushed to lock the gate of his building to keep rebels from hiding in it. “I don’t want my place to collapse on my head,” he said.
Witnesses said the explosions were followed by heavy gunfire that stretched on for hours at the Omayyad Square and around the military compound. One witness who managed to get close to the area, which was cordoned off, saw panicked soldiers shooting in the air randomly as they ran.
The witness, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said it appears that rebels may have been holed up inside the army command building, from where the sound of gunfire could clearly be heard.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said heavy clashes were taking place inside the compound of the army command, adding that there were casualties on both sides.
The force of the explosion left a good part of the compound overlooking the huge square charred. Air conditioners and door frames were blown from their place and dangled outside the building.
The Army statement said the blasts were caused by a car bomb and an explosive device that went off near the army command buildings. It said “terrorists” in the area simultaneously opened fire randomly to terrorise people, adding that authorities were pursuing the gunmen. Syrian authorities regularly refer to rebels fighting to topple Assad’s regime as terrorists.
The statement said a number of guards were wounded.
“I can confirm that all our comrades in the military command and defense ministry are fine,” Information Minister Omran Zoubi told Syrian TV, which is located near the site of the explosion, in a telephone call.
“Everything is normal,” he said. “There was a terrorist act, perhaps near a significant location, yes, this is true, but they failed as usual to achieve their goals.”
Ambulances were rushed to the site as police sealed off the area to traffic and journalists. Traffic in other areas snarled as checkpoints were set up, blocking access to the capital from the suburbs.