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Associated Press
Syrians gather beneath the shattered facade of a building damaged by a car bomb Monday in Damascus, Syria. The blast killed at least 15 people.

15 killed in Damascus blast

Deals symbolic blow in Syria’s financial district

– A suicide car bomber struck Monday in the financial heart of Syria’s capital, killing at least 15 people, damaging the nearby central bank and incinerating cars and trees in the neighborhood.

The attack was the latest in a recent series of bombings to hit Damascus in the civil war, slowly closing in on President Bashar Assad’s base of power in the capital. Rebel fighters have chipped away at the regime’s hold in northern and eastern Syria, as well as making significant gains in the south, helped in part by an influx of foreign-funded weapons.

The blast was adjacent to Sabaa Bahrat Square – near the state-run Syrian Investment Agency, the Syrian Central Bank and the Finance Ministry – and dealt a symbolic blow to the nation’s ailing economy.

In the early days of the 2-year-old uprising, the grandiose roundabout was home to huge pro-regime demonstrations with a gigantic poster of Assad hung over the central bank headquarters.

The area was a different scene Monday.

State TV showed several cars on fire and thick black smoke billowing above the tree-lined street. At least six bodies were sprawled on the pavement. Paramedics carried a young woman on a stretcher, her face bloodied and her white shirt stained red. A man placed a T-shirt over a victim whose face was blown off.

Firefighters struggled to extinguish flames that engulfed the two buildings as well as a row of cars near the roundabout. State media put the toll at 15 dead and 146 wounded.

Witnesses said the suicide attacker tried to ram the vehicle into the investment agency but was stopped by guards, forcing the bomber to detonate the explosives at the gate.

Visiting a mosque across the street that was damaged in the blast, Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi described the attack as “the work of cowards” and vowed the army would crush all armed groups fighting the government. Shattered glass and torn curtains littered the mosque’s red carpet.

Some people wandering through the twisted metal, body parts and rubble on the street and directed their anger at countries supporting the rebellion.

“I want to say to Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey that the Syrian people stand firm behind their leadership, and they are steadfast and will never kneel down, and we will emerge victorious,” said engineer Saeed Halabi, 54, calling the attack a “terrorist and cowardly act.”

The U.N. estimates that more than 70,000 people have been killed in the civil war.

The Syrian regime denies there is a popular uprising and refers to the rebels as “terrorists” and “mercenaries,” allegedly backed by foreign powers trying to destabilize the country.

The last large explosion in central Damascus took place March 21, when a suicide bomber at a mosque killed 42 people, including a top Sunni Muslim preacher who was an outspoken supporter of Assad.

A month earlier, a suicide car bombing near the ruling Baath Party headquarters – just blocks away from Monday’s attack – killed 53. Anti-regime activists put the death toll from that bombing at 61, which would make it the deadliest in the conflict.

There was no claim of responsibility for any of those bombings.

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