BEIRUT -- A car bomb exploded Sunday at one of the entrances to Damascus’ Old City, killing 13 people and injuring 29, as an international peace envoy seeking a cease-fire in the Syrian conflict met with President Bashar Assad, state media reported.
Authorities said the bomb detonated in Bab Touma Square, a historic Old City district that has mostly been spared the violence raging across much of Syria.
Bab Touma — or Thomas’s Gate, after the apostle Thomas — is considered an important landmark of early Christianity. The ancient district remains home to many members of Syria’s Christian minority.
Scenes on state television showed burned-out cars as body bags lay in the vicinity of Bab Touma, with the signature arched stone entrance to the Old City in the background.
No group took immediate responsibility for the blast. The government blamed the bombing on an “armed terrorist group,” its customary description of rebels seeking to oust Assad.
The official Syrian Arab News Service quoted a Syriac Orthodox priest, identified as Father Gabriel Dawood, as saying: “In this place there were children on their way to their schools and people going about their business. Where is justice and amity?”
Anti-Assad rebels have turned to car bombs and other homemade explosives in their fight to overthrow the government.
The Britain-based, pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the car bomb in Bab Touma exploded near a police station. The group offered a lower casualty toll, with 10 people dead and 15 injured, but could not immediately break down how many casualties were civilians and how many were law enforcement officers.
Rebels have repeatedly targeted police and military installations. But car bombs targeting specific facilities or individuals often cause casualties among civilians near the detonation sites.
In Damascus, Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations and Arab League special peace envoy for Syria, had a meeting with Assad, who vowed to support “any sincere efforts seeking to find a political solution to the crisis,” the state news agency reported.
Brahimi is seeking a cease-fire to coincide with the Muslim holiday of Eid Al Adha, which begins Friday. The veteran Algerian diplomat has voiced the hope that a truce, once begun, could be extended and jump-start a political process to help end a bloody conflict that has raged for more than 19 months, leaving at least 20,000 dead.
Various nations, including the United States and Turkey, which both have called for Assad to step down, have backed Brahimi’s plan for a cease-fire. The envoy says opposition representatives also have been supportive, though it is unclear if the disparate armed rebel factions fighting inside Syria are on board with a truce.
According to the official news agency, Assad said that any political process “should be essentially based on the principle of halting terrorism and what is required in this regard from the countries involved in supporting, arming and harboring the terrorists in Syria to halt such acts.”
The Syrian president was clearly referring to nations such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have provided material assistance to the Syrian rebels.
--Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: A cleric inspects the site where a car bomb exploded Sunday in front of a police station at the mostly Christians-inhabited Bab Touma Square in Damascus. Credit: Youssef Badawi / EPA