Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halki survived a bomb attack on his convoy in Damascus yesterday, state media and activists said, as rebels struck in the heart of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s capital.
The explosion shook the Mezze neighborhood shortly after 9am, sending a plume of thick black smoke into the sky, Internet footage posted by opposition activists showed.
The Britain-based Syria Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of sources across Syria, said one person accompanying the prime minister had been killed. State television reported casualties, but gave no details.
“The terrorist explosion in al-Mezze was an attempt to target the convoy of the prime minister. Doctor Wael al-Halki is well and not hurt at all,” state television said.
Syria’s Al-Ikhbariya TV later broadcast footage of al-Halki, who looked and sounded composed and unruffled, chairing an economic committee at the prime ministry.
Mezze is part of a shrinking “Square of Security” in central Damascus, where many government and military institutions are based and where senior Syrian officials live.
Sheltered for nearly two years from the bloodshed and destruction ravaging much of the rest of Syria, it has been slowly sucked into violence as rebel forces based to the east of the capital launch mortar attacks and carry out bombings in the once-insulated city center.
Al-Assad has lost control of large areas of northern and eastern Syria, faces a growing challenge in the southern province of Daraa, and is battling rebels in many cities.
However, his forces have been waging powerful ground offensives, backed by artillery and air strikes, against rebel-held territory around the capital and near the central city of Homs, which links Damascus to the heartland of al-Assad’s minority Alawite sect in the mountains overlooking the Mediterranean.
Most rebel fighters are from Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority.
On Sunday, activists said rebels were battling troops near a complex linked to Syria’s alleged chemical weapons program — the Scientific Studies and Research Center on the foothills of Qasioun Mountain in Damascus’ Barzeh District.
The US last week said al-Assad’s forces had probably used chemical arms in the conflict and congressional pressure has mounted on US President Barack Obama to do more to help the rebels. However, Obama has made clear he is in no rush to intervene on the basis of evidence he said was still preliminary.
The UN says more than 70,000 people have been killed in Syria’s civil war. Five million people have fled their homes, including 1.4 million refugees in nearby countries and war losses are estimated at many tens of billions of dollars.
The Beirut-based UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia estimates that 400,000 houses have been completely destroyed, 300,000 partially destroyed and a further half million suffered some kind of structural damage.