Bombing sets off gunbattle in Syria

Security forces clash with terrorist group near embassies in Damascus

April 28, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ISTANBUL, Turkey - Heavily armed assailants detonated a bomb yesterday near a cluster of foreign embassies in Damascus, the Syrian capital, setting off an intense gunbattle 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 incidents of violence 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-Qaida have been blamed for those other incidents. Syria, where such violence has been nearly unheard of for two decades, has a history of crushing any sign of Islamic radicalism within its borders, although it has been accused by the United States of sponsoring terror in Lebanon and Israel. U.S. officials also accuse Syria of allowing foreign fighters to cross from its territory into Iraq to attack allied occupation forces.

Imad Mustapha, the Syrian ambassador to the United States, told CNN that his government was intent on fighting militants. "We've been doing our best against al-Qaida," he said. "We share the same enemy."

Early today, Syrian television reported that security forces had found a cache of arms and explosives in a raid in the Damascus district where police had clashed with the gunmen.

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 last evening, detonating a bomb and exchanging fire with the police.

A U.S. official in Washington said last night that conflicting accounts of the clash made it impossible to say who the attackers were or what might have been their targets. Despite differences between the two governments, the Syrian authorities have worked closely with U.S. intelligence in providing information about al-Qaida.

The violence began shortly after 8 p.m. with at least two loud blasts heard 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.

An unidentified Interior Ministry official quoted by the Syrian news agency SANA said four gunmen had set off the bomb under a car and then hurled grenades as they tried to escape police, killing one officer and a woman who was passing by.

Two of the attackers were also killed in the shootout, the official said.

"We were working in the library and heard lots of gunfire and explosions," a foreign student in Damascus told Reuters near the scene of the battle.

"Everyone was terrified, and we ran out of the building to see what was happening," he said. "We saw some big puffs of smoke, but things are closed off now."

It was not immediately clear whether other people had been wounded, although the Arab satellite television channel Al-Jazeera reported that the authorities had issued a call for all doctors to report to city hospitals.

At least one building was badly damaged in the attack, with part of its facade gutted by fire. A United Nations official in New York said that the building had once housed the international monitoring force for the Golan Heights but that no U.N. workers in Damascus were missing or wounded.

The British, Canadian and Iranian embassies also were in the area of the attack. A British Foreign Office spokesman in London said none of its nationals had been hurt. Canadian officials said their embassy had been slightly damaged in the fighting.

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