DAMASCUS, September 27 – 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 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 international airport at an intersection leading to Sayeda Zeinab neighbourhood, they said.
All the victims were civilian passers-by, according to state television.
Interior Minister General Bassam Abdel Majid told the broadcaster the attack was "a terrorist act," and added: "A counter-terrorist unit is trying to track down the perpetrators."
The attack, a rare act in a country known for its iron-fisted security, came at 8:45 am (0545 GMT) during the morning rush-hour in a teeming neighbourhood, state-run SANA news agency said, quoting a Syrian official.
Sayeda Zeinab 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.
SANA said this week that religious tourism to Shiite shrines nets around 40 million dollars each year and that more than two million people visit the Sayeda Zeinab shrine annually.
Journalists were prevented by security forces from approaching the scene of the blast but state television broadcast footage showing damage to cars, a building and a bus.
The target of the bombing was not immediately known.
"It is too soon to say" who carried out this "terrorist act," Ibrahim Darraji, an international law professor at the university of Damascus, told AFP.
"But we must realise that Syria is targeted, either by countries whose interests contradict those of Damascus… or other groups who have an interest in undermining Syrian security," he said.
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 was killed in a Damascus car bombing which the Lebanese Shiite militant group blamed on Israel. The Jewish state denied any involvement.
Mughnieh, a shadowy figure on America’s most wanted list for more than 20 years, was linked to notorious attacks against Western and Israeli targets in the 1980s and 1990s. Syria called his murder a "terrorist" act.
Saturday’s attack also comes after Lebanon said on Monday that Syria had boosted troop numbers along the border. Syria said the move was to combat smuggling.
In August, Syria confirmed the assassination of top army general Mohamed Sleiman, described in Arab media as having been the government’s liaison with Hezbollah.
The Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat said he was a senior officer "in charge of sensitive files and closely linked to the Syrian top brass."
On Thursday the head of the UN atomic agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, revealed that the watchdog’s probe into alleged illicit nuclear work in Syria has been delayed because the agency’s contact man in Syria had been murdered.
He did not reveal the identity of the contact.
"The reason that Syria has been late in providing additional information (is) that our interlocutor has been assassinated in Syria," ElBaradei told a closed-door session of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s 35-member board. A recording of his remarks was obtained by AFP.
US President George W. Bush on Tuesday again accused Syria and its key regional ally Iran of sponsoring terrorism and said in a farewell speech to the UN General Assembly that such violence "has no place in the modern world."