REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- A car bomb exploded Saturday in the southern Syrian city where the revolt against President Bashar Assad began almost a year ago, authorities said, the latest in a string of mysterious blasts that have added a disturbing element to the nation’s already violent rebellion.
A "terrorist suicide bomber" detonated the payload at a traffic circle in Dara, killing three civilians and wounding 20 others, including law enforcement personnel, the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported.
The recent bombings have rattled Syrians and evoked memories of the carnage in neighboring Iraq that followed the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Syrian authorities have blamed the suicide attacks on "terrorists" and Islamic militants linked to Al Qaeda. The Syrian opposition has said the car bombs are the handiwork of security services seeking to discredit the uprising.
The car bomb in Dara was the first reported since Feb. 10, when twin explosions at state security buildings killed more than two dozen people in the commercial hub of Aleppo. The northern city had previously been relatively free of the violence sweeping much of the country.
Three other car bombs, also targeting security posts, exploded in Damascus in December and January, killing dozens and stunning the capital. Damascus, like Aleppo, mostly had been spared violent unrest and is viewed as a bastion of support for Assad.
Elsewhere in Syria, opposition activists reported renewed government shelling Saturday in the central city of Homs, the scene of the most concentrated fighting and the highest number of casualties since the uprising began last March.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had not yet received government permission to enter the former rebel stronghold of Baba Amr, a Homs neighborhood occupied for months by armed rebels. Syrian forces overran the battered district Thursday as insurgents withdrew in the face of a government onslaught.
The opposition says security forces shelled Baba Amr for weeks, reducing much of the district to rubble and killing hundreds of civilians, while creating a humanitarian catastrophe in a zone with little or no water, food or electricity.
The government says militants took over Baba Amr and imposed their rule on a terrified population.
Also Saturday, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent said it had turned over to diplomats in Damascus the bodies of two Western journalists slain in Baba Amr. The bodies of U.S.-born Marie Colvin, 56, a reporter for the Sunday Times of London, and Remi Ochlik, 28, a French freelance photographer, were expected to be repatriated to the United States and France, respectively.
The two were reported killed on Feb. 22 during a rocket attack on a makeshift Baba Amr media center. French authorities say prosecutors have opened a preliminary murder inquiry into allegations that Syrian forces deliberately targeted the media center.
At least 7,500 people have died in Syria’s almost year-long conflict, according to the United Nations. The government says more than 2,000 security personnel have been killed.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: Men bury three rebel fighters during their funeral in Idlib, in northern Syria, on Saturday. Credit: Rodrigo Abd /Associated Press