Suicide blast in Syria hits military compound

BASSEM MROUE Associated Press Published:

BEIRUT (AP) -- A car bomb tore through the parking lot of a military compound in an eastern Syrian city on Saturday, killing nine people in the latest in a series of blasts in recent months targeting security installations, the country's state media reported.

The blast in Deir al-Zour took place as a top U.N. team was in the capital Damascus to discuss with Syrian officials the peace plan brokered by special envoy Kofi Annan last month. Annan's six-point plan paved the way for the deployment of about 260 U.N. observers, and also calls for a cease-fire and dialogue to end the conflict.

Footage broadcast on state TV of Friday's bombing showed damaged buildings, smoldering cars, and trucks flipped upside down. Debris filled a street that was stained with blood. State television said the vehicle was rigged with 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds) of explosives and that the suicide blast left a crater five meters (15 feet) wide and more than 2 meters (6 feet) deep, and heavily damaged buildings up to 100 meters (yards) away.

The state-run news agency SANA said the blast hit the parking lot of a military residential compound, while an opposition group, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reported that the bomb went off close to the city branches of the Military Intelligence Directorate and Air Force Intelligence. State TV said U.N. observers based in the city visited the site of the blast.

Attacks such as the one in Deir al-Zour, which once served as a transit hub for militants heading to fight U.S. forces in neighboring Iraq, have raised fears that al-Qaida-linked jihadis have made serious inroads into Syria's rebel movement.

No one claimed responsibility for Saturday's attack. A group calling itself the Al-Nusra Front has claimed some previous attacks through statements posted on militant websites. Little is known about the group, although Western intelligence officials say it could be a front for a branch of al-Qaida militants from Iraq operating in Syria.

The last major bombing targeted an intelligence building in Damascus on May 10. It struck during morning rush hour and the high death toll -- some 55 people -- made it the deadliest such attack since the uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime began in March of last year.

Some of the tactics used in Damascus -- a small blast drawing attention prior to a larger one -- were reminiscent of al-Qaida attacks during Iraq's insurgency.

On Thursday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he believes that "alarmingly and surprisingly," al-Qaida must have been behind the May 10 attack in the Syrian capital.

"The recent terrorist attacks in Damascus suggest that these attacks were carefully orchestrated," he said. "Having seen the scale and sophistication of these terrorist attacks, one might think that this terrorist attack was done by a certain group with organization and clear intent."

Saturday's blast came a day after the state-run news agency SANA reported that authorities foiled an attempt to blow up a car rigged with explosives in Deir al-Zour city and detained those involved.

Deir el-Zour province, of which the city is the provincial capital, was a major crossing point for jihadis traveling to Iraq to fight after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. During the war, the U.S. and Iraqi governments repeatedly accused Syria of allowing foreign fighters from across the Arab world to pass through, but Damascus said it could not stop smuggling networks from crossing the long desert border.

In 2008, a cross-border raid by U.S. special forces killed the al-Qaida-linked head of a smuggling network and seven other people in the province.

Since the cease-fire, which is part of Annan's plan, went into effect on April 12, there have been daily reports of clashes between Syrian troops and rebels. Still, the level of violence has dropped since the U.N. observers began arriving last month.

A senior U.N. delegation that included Babacar Gaye, military adviser to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous was expected to meet with with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem on Saturday.

The chief of the U.N. observers in Syria, Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, and Annan deputy Jean-Marie Guehenno are also to take part in the meeting.

Ladsous told reporters Saturday that he met with some observers and "reminded them of the importance of the mission which is basically to save lives by confirming the reduction in the level of overall violence." He added that a drop in bloodshed would help create conditions "that could be conducive to some political processes being started by the initiative of the joint special envoy."

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