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31 dead as car bomb rocks central Damascus

By AFP - Feb 21,2013 - Last updated at Feb 21,2013

DAMASCUS –– A powerful car bomb exploded near the offices of Syria's ruling Baath party in central Damascus on Thursday, killing at least 31 people, wounding dozens and shattering buildings, media and a watchdog said.

The mid-morning blast, which rocked the city centre and sent thick smoke scudding across the skyline, came as Syria's opposition was meeting in Cairo to discuss proposals by its leader to hold conditional talks with Syria's regime.

Shortly after the blast, a nearby military headquarters came under mortar attack, state television said, without giving details.

The official SANA news agency said a "large number" of civilians were killed or wounded in what it described as a "terrorist attack", while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the initial toll at 31 dead and dozens wounded.

Images of bloodied bodies lying on the ground and of blazing vehicles were broadcast by the official television channel Al-Ekhbariya, which said children were among the wounded, as the blast occurred near a school in Mazraa district.

A police official told AFP the car bomb exploded at the 16 November Square near the Al-Iman mosque, where the Baath party's head offices are located.

Ambulances sirens rang out, and machinegun fire was also heard.

Russian news agencies reported the windows of Russia's embassy in Damascus were blown out by the blast but none of its staff were hurt.

The explosion added urgency to the Cairo meeting of the main opposition National Coalition, where discussions according to a delegate were centered on an offer by the group's chief to hold direct talks with the Syrian regime.

"The agenda is long and among the issues to be discussed is the initiative of Ahmed Moaz Al Khatib," Khaled Nasser told AFP.

Coalition chief Khatib has offered to negotiate with officials of President Bashar Assad's regime who have no "blood on their hands" -- naming Vice President Farouq Sharaa as a possible pointman.

Assad's regime has said it is ready to negotiate with the opposition but without pre-conditions.


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