ALEPPO, Syria (Reuters) – A bomb exploded in central Damascus near military buildings and a hotel housing U.N. observers on Wednesday, wounding three people, and rebels clashed with security forces in the Syrian capital.
No U.N. staff were hurt in the blast, which occurred exactly four weeks after a bomb killed four of President Bashar al-Assad’s top security officials, including his brother-in-law.
State media said three people were injured in the bombing and several rebels were killed or captured in the gunbattle in the western district of Mezze. Opposition activists said the fighting erupted after insurgents attacked security checkpoints.
Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said the bomb blast proved “the criminal and barbaric nature of those who carry out these attacks – and their backers in Syria and abroad”.
Firefighters were dousing a fuel tanker set ablaze when the bomb detonated at 8.30 a.m. (0530 GMT) in a car park behind the hotel. Ash and dust covered white U.N. vehicles parked nearby.
U.N. emergency relief coordinator Valerie Amos, on a mission to seek more access for aid deliveries, was meeting European Union officials in Damascus when the bomb exploded.
She herself was unable to reach the town of Douma, a trouble spot just north of the capital, due to bombardment.
“Waiting at checkpoint to get into Duma. Sounds of shelling. Could not enter,” Amos tweeted. The authorities told her she had been turned back for her own safety, her spokesman said later.
Although the Damascus bombing occurred close to the hotel, its target was not clear. The area is home to a Syrian army officers’ club and a building belonging to the ruling Baath Party. It is also not far from the army command.
Groups calling themselves The Descendants of the Prophet Brigade and the al-Habib al-Mustafa Brigade said on a Facebook page they were jointly responsible and that the attack had killed 50 soldiers. It was impossible to verify that claim.
Last month Assad’s troops successfully counter-attacked after rebels seized parts of Damascus. They are still trying to dislodge insurgents from Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city.
A Syrian air strike has wrecked a hospital in a rebel-held area of Aleppo, a doctor there said on Wednesday, an attack that New York-based Human Rights Watch said violated international law. At least two holes gaped in the walls of Al Shifaa Hospital and four floors were heavily damaged by Tuesday’s raid.
“If we had lingered just another five minutes, we would have died,” said the surgeon, who gave his name only as Younes.
Fifteen patients had been in the hospital when it was attacked, all of whom had been transferred elsewhere, he said.
Dust covered hospital beds, incubators were broken and the floor was strewn with rubble. Water from a broken tank had leaked out, mixing with patches of blood.
More than 160 people, including 105 civilians, were killed across Syria on Tuesday, an opposition watchdog reported.
Opposition sources say 18,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad erupted in March last year. The violence has displaced 1.5 million people inside Syria and forced many to flee abroad, with 150,000 registered refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, U.N. figures show.
Syrian state media said Amos met Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem to discuss the growing needs of civilians affected by the “destruction of private and state property by terrorist armed groups” – the government’s usual term for rebels.
The bloodshed has divided regional and world powers, foiling peace efforts and paralysing the U.N. Security Council on Syria.
Muslim heads of state were expected to suspend Syria from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation at a summit in Mecca on Wednesday, over the objections of Iran, Assad’s closest ally.
The 57-member body’s rebuke is mostly symbolic, but it shows Syria’s isolation in much of the Sunni-majority Islamic world.
Syria’s own Sunni majority is the dynamo of the revolt against Assad, whose Shi’ite-rooted Alawite minority is at the core of a ruling system based on the army and security services.
Syria has been caught up in a wider sectarian-tinged tussle pitting Shi’ite Iran against Saudi Arabia and its Sunni-ruled Gulf allies. Turkey has also turned against Assad to become a focus of efforts to topple its former friend.
Nevertheless, preserving a show of Muslim unity, Saudi King Abdullah welcomed leaders to the Mecca summit with a smiling Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad beside him.
“It was a message to the Iranian nation and, I assume, to the Saudi people, that we are Muslim and we have to work together and forget about our differences,” said Abdullah al-Shammari, a Saudi political analyst.
But those gaps appear insurmountable when it comes to Syria, with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey supporting the rebels, and Iran determined to prop up a proven ally who has provided vital logistical support for its Shi’ite ally Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Ankara and Washington have pledged to step up aid to the Syrian opposition and planning for a post-Assad Syria.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Saturday the United States and Turkey were looking at all ways to help Syrian rebel forces, possibly including a no-fly zone.
U.S. officials have since emphasised that no such step toward direct military intervention was likely any time soon.
“Of course we should evaluate these issues. However, our discussions of these issues with Turkey should not suggest we are making commitments to set up these zones,” U.S. ambassador to Ankara Frank Ricciardone was quoted as saying.
“There are serious legal and practical obstacles on this issue,” he said of proposals for a no-fly zone or buffer zone in Syria, according to Turkish newspapers he had briefed.
A NATO-led no-fly zone and bombing campaign helped Libyan rebels overthrow Muammar Gaddafi last year. But the West has shied away from an overt military role in Syria.
In a sign of how the war in Syria affects its neighbours, a Shi’ite clan in Lebanon said it had kidnapped more than 20 Syrians there after rebels seized a kinsman in Damascus.
Clan member Maher al-Meqdad said the action was to win the release of Hassan al-Meqdad, held for the past two days by Free Syrian Army rebels who said Hezbollah had sent him to Syria.
Maher al-Meqdad said his relative had gone to Syria before the uprising began and had no links to the fighting there.
Syria’s uprising has polarised Lebanon, where Sunnis mostly support the rebels, while Hezbollah backs Assad.
(Additional reporting by Tom Perry and Erika Solomon in Beirut, Asma Alsharif in Jeddah, Angus McDowall in Riyadh, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Issam Abdullah in Beirut; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Mark Heinrich)