A car bomb exploded near a Shiite shrine in southern Damascus on Saturday, killing 17 people and wounding 14 others in one of the deadliest attacks to hit Syria in a dozen years, state media said.
The car packed with 200 kilos (440 pounds) of explosives blew up near a security checkpoint on a road to Damascus airport in what Interior Minister General Bassam Abdel Majid told state television was “a terrorist act.”
All the casualties were civilians, he said.
“A counter-terrorist unit is trying to track down the perpetrators… We can’t point the finger at any party.”
The rare attack in a country known for its iron-fisted security came during the morning rush-hour in the teeming neighbourhood of Sayeda Zeinab, the state-run SANA news agency said, quoting a Syrian official.
The district is popular among Shiite pilgrims from Iran, Lebanon and Iraq who pray at the tomb of Zeinab, daughter of the Shiite martyr Ali and granddaughter of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed.
More than two million people reportedly visit the shrine each year.
Witnesses told state television the bomb could have claimed more victims if it had gone off a day later.
“It felt like an earthquake. The force of the explosion threw me out of bed,” said one man who lives nearby.
“Thank God this was Saturday. The catastrophe would have been bigger if the attack had taken place on Sunday when schools were open.”
Another man said that the blast was heard some 10 kilometres (six miles) away in the northern suburbs of Duma and Harasta.
“May Allah break the hands of those who did this,” said a boy.
The attack was condemned by Syria’s ally Russia as well as France, Jordan and Lebanon.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sent a cable of condolences to his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad describing the attack as “a cruel and inhumane crime,” the Kremlin website said.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy condemned the “barbarian and blind” attack and expressed “solidarity with Syria in its fight against terrorism,” his office said in a statement.
Lebanon’s Administrative Development Minister Ibrahim Shamseddin called it a “a criminal and terrorist act” while Jordan’s King Abdullah II also condemned the bombing.
Journalists allowed on the scene after being kept behind cordons by security forces for several hours also reported damage to buildings and cars. Residents were sweeping up glass and debris, they said.
The precise target of the bombing was not immediately known.
“Syria is targeted, either by countries whose interests contradict those of Damascus… or other groups who have an interest in undermining Syrian security,” law professor Ibrahim Darraji told AFP.
The blast was the deadliest since a spate of attacks in the 1980s blamed on Muslim Brotherhood militants.
It was the worst since February when Hezbollah commander Imad Mughnieh, linked to attacks on Western and Israeli targets in the 1980s and 1990s, was killed in a Damascus car bombing.
The Lebanese Shiite militant group blamed Israel, which denied any involvement, and Syria called Mughniyeh’s murder a “terrorist” act.
Saturday’s attack also comes after Lebanon said on Monday that Syria had boosted troop numbers along the border. Damascus said the move was to combat smuggling.
In August, Syria confirmed the assassination of top army general Mohammed Sleiman, amid conflicting Arab media reports suggesting he was the government’s liaison with Hezbollah and in charge of sensitive files.
On Thursday, UN atomic agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei said the watchdog’s probe into alleged illicit nuclear work in Syria has been delayed because its contact man in Syria — whom he did not identify — had been murdered.