Truck Bomb Explodes in Central Damascus - New York Times
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Explosives hidden in a diesel tanker truck detonated on Wednesday behind a hotel used by the dwindling United Nations mission in Damascus, a day after a defecting former prime minister said the government of President Bashar al-Assad was crumbling from within. The former official, Riyad Farid Hijab, spoke as fighting continued in Syria’s biggest cities in what an activist called a “cycle of endless violence.”
On Wednesday, Syria’s state news agency reported that an “explosive device, attached to a diesel tank,” had exploded behind the Damascus hotel, causing injuries.
The agency, SANA, published photographs of a tanker truck seemingly cut in two by the blast, with fire service officers hosing it down. Several cars parked nearby seemed to have been damaged.
Juliette Touma, a spokeswoman for the United Nations mission, said: “I can confirm that around 8:05 a.m. there was an explosion outside the Dama Rose hotel, where the U.N. members stay. I can confirm that none of the U.N. members were injured.”
A Damascus resident, a marketing executive who was reached by telephone, described it as a small explosion. “I work very closely to where it happened and I was on my way to the office, but nobody stopped and things were just normal on the street,” she said.
The hotel is close to a military depot and the explosion sent up a huge plume of smoke, news reports said. The Associated Press quoted one of its reporters at the scene as saying the explosion was in a parking lot belonging to the military compound. The hotel and a nearby labor union building were damaged, The A.P. said.
It was not clear who planted the explosives, which seemed to show a degree of lawlessness that would once have been unthinkable in the Syrian capital before the revolt beginning in March 2011 began to challenge and undermine the iron control of the Assad dynasty.
The blast appeared to be at least the third bomb attack of the week. On Sunday, the authorities reported that two bombs went off simultaneously in an upscale area of the capital, with one detonated remotely as a group of soldiers passed by.
In July, a bomb attack killed four members of President Assad’s inner circle in Damascus, highlighting the perils confronting loyalist officials.
“Based on my experience and my position, the regime is falling apart morally, materially, economically,” Mr. Hijab, the former prime minister, said at a news conference in Amman, Jordan, on Tuesday. The official fled the country last week, and the news conference was his first public appearance since his defection. “Its military is rusting, and it only controls 30 percent of Syria’s territory,” he added.
He added that many high-level civilian and military officials in Syria — “leaders with dignity” — were waiting to defect. And he urged the opposition to unify and move ahead with plans for a transitional government and “a civilian democratic state that preserves the right, justice and dignity of all Syrians.”
But he said he had no interest in a formal position with a post-Assad government, should there be one. “I have sacrificed myself in the campaign of righteousness,” he said. “I don’t want to satisfy anyone but God.”
Mr. Hijab’s repudiation of the Assad government was welcomed in Washington, where the Treasury Department removed his name from a blacklist of high Syrian officials whose assets have been frozen by American sanctions. In a statement announcing Mr. Hijab’s removal from the blacklist, the Treasury Department said it hoped that other Syrian officials would take “similarly courageous steps to reject the Assad regime and stand with the Syrian people.”
Mr. Hijab explained his defection as a response to the government’s threats against his family, and to his conclusion that the Assad government had no reasonable means to end the violence.
His claims about the weakness of the Assad government could not be independently verified, and he gave few details to support his harsh assessment. Mr. Hijab, a Sunni technocrat from the eastern city of Deir al-Zour — which has been enduring shelling and fighting for weeks — was not a member of Mr. Assad’s inner circle, and he was appointed to the position of prime minister only in June.
But analysts have said that as the highest-level civilian official to defect, he may have had access to reliable internal assessments or government sources. His argument that the government is weakening follows similar descriptions from other defectors, who have suggested that Mr. Assad’s grip on power has been loosening even as Syria increasingly becomes the arena for a proxy war, with Iran and Russia assisting the government as Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia funnel military aid to the rebels, supplemented with nonlethal assistance from the United States.
The Obama administration has resisted an intensified clamor by Syrian insurgents for military help from the United States, including ammunition and the imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria to deter the Syrian air force from bombing rebel targets. While the administration has not ruled out any option on Syria, American officials have repeatedly said they do not want to further militarize the conflict. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta reiterated that view in an interview on Monday with The Associated Press, asserting that plans for a no-fly zone in Syria were “not on the front burner as far as I know.”
In Aleppo, where communications seemed to be limited, fighting continued Tuesday, with the rebels saying they were trying to hold contested areas amid an extended government assault.
In and around Damascus, activists reported heavy shelling and growing numbers of refugees flowing out of the city. One activist reported that in the suburb of Qudsaya, dozens of shells landed in a single hour, destroying homes and injuring residents.
In the city, heavy clashes were reported in the neighborhood of Tadamon, a rebel-controlled area that abuts Yarmouk, Syria’s largest Palestinian neighborhood, and in an area called Qabbon, where sectarian fighting between Alawites and Sunnis appeared to have caused a mass exodus.
“A cycle of endless violence seems to have been set off,” said an activist in Damascus who declined to give his name. “Everyone I know in Qabbon has said they are fleeing before ‘we get slaughtered.’ That’s what they told me.”
Reporting was contributed by Hala Droubi from Dubai; Hwaida Saad from Antakya, Turkey; Alan Cowell from London; and Rick Gladstone from New York.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Correction: August 15, 2012
An earlier version of this story misquoted a spokeswoman for the United Nations mission in Syria. Juliette Touma said an explosion outside the Dama Rose hotel occurred around 8:05 a.m., not 5 a.m.