Damascus Hit by a Bombing and a Gunfight
By SUSAN SACHS
ISTANBUL, Wednesday, April 28 — Heavily armed assailants detonated a bomb near a cluster of foreign embassies in Damascus, the Syrian capital, on Tuesday, setting off an intense gun battle with state security forces that maintain exceptionally tight control over the society.
Syrian officials said the attack had been carried out by “a terrorist and sabotage group,” broadly linking it to recent terrorist incidents in other Arab capitals, including deadly bombings in Saudi Arabia and a planned poison gas attack that Jordan said it foiled last week. There was no independent corroboration of that. Islamic militants associated with Al Qaeda’s terror network have been blamed for the other incidents.
Early Wednesday, Syrian television reported that security forces had found a cache of arms and explosives in a raid in the upscale Damascus district where the police had clashed with the gunmen.
An unidentified Interior Ministry official quoted by the Syrian news agency SANA said one officer and a woman who was passing by were killed in the shootout. The official said two of the attackers had also been killed.
State-run television showed footage of a room in which rocket-propelled grenades, gas cylinders and bags of yellow powder were stored. It said the makeshift depot had been used by the group that staged the attack in the diplomatic area on Tuesday evening, detonating a bomb and exchanging fire with the police.
It was not immediately clear whether anyone was wounded in the explosions, although the Arab television station Al Jazeera reported that the authorities had issued a call for all doctors to report to city hospitals.
In Syria, violence like this has been nearly unheard of for two decades. The government has a history of crushing any sign of Islamic radicalism within its borders, although it has been accused by the United States of sponsoring terrorism in Lebanon and Israel. American officials also accuse Syria of allowing foreign fighters to cross from its territory into Iraq to attack allied occupation forces.
An American official in Washington said Tuesday night that conflicting accounts of the clash made it impossible to say who the attackers were or what might have been their targets. Despite reported differences between the two governments, the Syrian authorities have worked closely with American intelligence agencies in providing information about Al Qaeda.
Imad Mustapha, the Syrian ambassador to the United States, told CNN that his government was intent on fighting terrorism.
“We’ve been doing our best against Al Qaeda,” Mr. Mustapha said. “We share the same enemy.”
The violence began shortly after 8 p.m. with at least two loud blasts in the Mazza district, a well-to-do residential neighborhood outside the city center where several embassies are situated, according to news agency reports and diplomats.
Residents said that security forces had converged on the scene and that the sound of gunfire continued for more than an hour, pierced by the sirens of ambulances and fire trucks. Some witnesses said the attackers had been armed with rocket-propelled grenades.
The Interior Ministry official told SANA that four gunmen had set off the bomb under a car and then hurled grenades as they tried to escape the police.
A foreign student in Damascus told Reuters near the scene of the battle: “We were working in the library and heard lots of gunfire and explosions. Everyone was terrified, and we ran out of the building to see what was happening. We saw some big puffs of smoke, but things are closed off now.”
At least one building was badly damaged in the attack, with part of its facade destroyed by fire. A United Nations official in New York said the building had once housed the international monitoring force for the Golan Heights, but that no United Nations workers in Damascus were missing or wounded.
The British, Canadian and Iranian Embassies are also in the area of the attack. A British Foreign Office spokesman in London said none of its nationals had been hurt. Canadian officials, however, said their embassy had been slightly damaged in the fighting.
The Syrian official blamed the overall turbulence in the region for the attack, apparently a reference to the unrest in American-occupied Iraq and the growing violence between Palestinians and Israelis.
“The security and political unrest and chaos the region is witnessing create the atmosphere for such criminal and condemned acts which threaten the security and stability of all countries of the region,” the official said.
Damascus, as far as is known, had been spared the terrorist violence that has plagued other Arab capitals and continues in Syria’s eastern neighbor, Iraq. The state usually quashes commotion of any kind; street protests are practically unknown, and even placid meetings on political reform are dealt with by arresting the participants.
Syria’s last known spate of open violence was in the early 1980’s, when Damascus was hit by a series of car bombs attributed to religious extremists. Hafez al-Assad, then Syria’s president, put down that revolt in 1982 by cornering the militants in the city of Hama and unleashing his military, an operation that killed at least 10,000 people.
While Syria permits radical groups like the Palestinian Islamic Jihad to operate offices in the capital and has in the past provided sanctuary to Kurdish militants, it also maintains a network of overlapping security and intelligence agencies to monitor them.
Its facade of calm, however, began to show cracks recently as restive Kurds in northern Syria clashed with the police, leaving at least eight people dead. The unrest spread briefly to Damascus last month, and Kurdish sources have said dozens of people have been caught up in a sweep of arrests.
During the American-led occupation of Iraq, Washington has repeatedly called into question Syria’s ability, or willingness, to contain terrorists. Turkish security officials investigating a series of bombings in Istanbul last November have also said they believed that some Qaeda militants had slipped over their border into Syria.
Damascus was reported to be calm after the attack, with the riot police and other forces guarding installations like the state television building.